Superintendent Mary Wegner told the Sitka Chamber that “building a climate where social/emotional learning is prevalent — not just a checkmark — but it’s how people interact, how staff and students interact — that cultural responsiveness and culturally respectful practices naturally are achieved.” In this picture, students in the Sitka Native Education Program march in observance of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. (Photo/KCAW/Katherine Rose)

Equity remains a top priority of the Sitka School District.

This was the main message Superintendent Mary Wegner delivered to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (11-20-19).

The Sitka School District — at the direction of the School Board — has been leaning into the idea of healthy schools, as reflected in the School Climate & Connectedness survey.

Wegner and district business manager Cassee Olin painted a picture of the district’s overall revenues and expenses, and the complex “web” of grants and reporting and regulatory requirements that keep Sitka’s schools running from year to year.

But Wegner said that the board remains focused on closing the so-called “achievement gap” — the difference in academic performance primarily between Native and non-Native students in the district.

She said that acknowledging cultural trauma remains an ongoing effort, as is creating healthy, welcoming schools. The annual School Climate & Connectedness survey is showing improvement, Wegner said, but in this excerpt from her remarks, she explains that the district must stay the course.

So how do we really change the system of education so that we can increase our School Climate & Connectedness, so that families feel comfortable, so that everybody who’s engaging understands what we’re working on. And you can say cultural responsiveness, cultural respect is one important aspect, and it is. But when I was in the Anchorage School District and I was on the Cultural Responsiveness Committee, as our own work evolved over the years as a committee, we realized that when you look at building a climate where social/emotional learning is prevalent — not just a checkmark — but it’s how people interact, how staff and students interact — that cultural responsiveness and culturally respectful practices naturally are achieved. It’s as easy as making sure that a teacher can pronounce every student’s name, and greets them when they enter the classroom.

Wegner offered another example: Before disciplining students who are tardy to school, district staff are now checking up on their well-being, by asking questions such as “Are you hungry?”

Wegner told the chamber that the emphasis on a welcoming, culturally responsive environment in schools does not come at the expense of academic learning. She said Sitka remains ahead of the statewide curve.

When you look at: How do you do this work? How do you really change systems so that you don’t lose sight of the academic focus? So you don’t slide backward from academics? And we’re continuing to stay — as we have been in academics — slightly above the state average. That’s always how we operate. We want to be way above, but we haven’t — as we do our work — impacted academic learning.

Wegner said that the district would introduce a new form of “human centered” strategic planning, beginning in January, which will be designed to support the district’s mission of creating equity in Sitka’s schools.