Story last updated at 8:20 PM on Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Teachers get lessons from the experts

Statewide mentoring projects match young educators with experienced veterans

By McKibben Jackinsky

Having seen Alaska once, Riley and Jennifer Justice wanted to return. The opportunity came when the Central Michigan University graduates were hired as teachers by Tim Peterson, human resource director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

The couple's first assignment: to spend the 2008-2009 school year at Port Graham School, with a student enrollment of less than 20 in a remote community near the southern tip of the peninsula, accessible only by boat or air.

"Jennifer was hired to teach kindergarten through fifth grade and I was hired to teach sixth through twelfth grade," said Riley Justice. The couple is now in their second year at the school, but going from Michigan to Port Graham was a big step.

So was the transition from being university students to having students of their own, especially students in multiple grades, without the benefit of experienced teachers nearby.

Enter: the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, launched for the 2003-2004 school year, when the University of Alaska obtained funding to get it off the ground. It began with one mentor working with new teachers in five districts.

It has grown to include about 30 mentors working with hundreds of first- and second-year teachers across Alaska.

The program's goals are to improve teacher retention, enhance the quality of instruction and improve student achievement.

The Justices' first mentor was Lura Hegg, a Wasilla teacher with 17 years of experience; this year, they have been assigned Hal Neace, a former Homer Middle School science teacher with 33 years of teaching experience. This is Neace's first year as a mentor; he retired from KPBSD last spring.

"It's been very beneficial," Justice said of the mentoring project. "They've done everything from analyze our teaching to evaluating different teaching styles. They've given us tips and resources. If we're having a problem in a subject area or subject content, we ask them and they can talk to other mentors and pass the information along to us. It's a really good networking opportunity."

Hegg visited the Tylers on a monthly basis. Neace, who lives in Homer, makes it to Port Graham twice a month, weather permitting. He also visits with eight other teachers he is working with on the Kenai Peninsula and six in Dillingham.

"Mentors have seen most of the situations the (teachers) are dealing with and can identify with them," Neace said of the mentor-mentee relationship.

It also is a learning experience for mentors, Neace pointed out. Rather than focusing on science, he now works with reading specialists, preschool teachers, K-2 elementary and self-contained classes.

Some mentors, like Melissa Cloud and Ed Sotelo, both of Homer, did not retire before becoming mentors. They are "loaned" from their districts, with their salaries paid to the district by the project.

"A lot of them transition out of their profession this way, but we've certainly had a few of them come back to us and go back into the classroom," Peterson said. "The good part is, we get them to be trainers and we're not paying for it."

"Being a mentor allowed me to see a bit of Alaska, connect with teachers in rural Alaska, work with fantastic colleagues and students across the state and receive some expert training," said Cloud, who had 16 years classroom experience prior to mentoring.

For two years, Cloud worked with 14-16 teachers in Port Graham, Nanwalek, Razdolna, Paul Banks, West Homer, St. George, Akiak and Akiachak.

At the end of that time, she had the option of reapplying with the mentor project or returning to her West Homer Elementary School classroom. She chose returning to West Homer, where she continues to teach.

"As much as I would have liked to continue the work, the travel was a killer and I needed to reconnect with home, Homer, family and friends," she said. "I might decide to reapply at some point, but not until I'm ready for an adventurous lifestyle again."

For LuAnne Nelson, a 23-year KPBSD teacher from Anchor Point, mentoring led to other opportunities. After two years traveling as far as Dutch Harbor to help new teachers learn the ins and outs of their profession, Nelson now works as a mentor with a program called "Math in a Cultural Context," a program operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

School administrators have a similar opportunity through the Alaska Administrator Coaching Project. It began in 2004 with state funding, is headed up by former KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Gary Whitely, and currently has 11 coaches working with more than 100 principals, superintendents and University of Alaska administrative interns.

All the coaches are retirees.

In addition to three annual institutes in Fairbanks, the coaches and administrators maintain contact via telephone and e-mail.

"The fundamental goal is to positively influence student achievement and the retention of principals, which is an issue especially in rural schools. It is the hope that with more support, tools and coaching, people will feel more compelled to stay in their jobs a little longer," said Whitely.

The feedback Ron Keffer, former Homer High School principal, has received about the project's benefits since he became a coach last year has been positive.

"After the October institute, (an administrator) told me he got more out of that two and a half days than he had during his entire course of graduate study," said Keffer.

When Dave Cloud retired from Homer High School, where he taught and coached basketball, Cloud, who has a master's degree in administration, worked as a substitute for other principals. When the opportunity to become a coach presented itself, Cloud accepted. He has been coaching for four years.

"Most of our schools are bush schools and it's hard to hang onto good people. They're alone and don't have anyone to talk to," said Cloud. "We're hoping to continue to make a difference in (educators) feeling comfortable in their jobs and staying on a longer period of time because it's important to have that steady leadership. We're trying to positively influence student achievement through principals that are working with their staff and becoming good instructional leaders."

Having a mentor in their corner has been important to Riley and Jennifer Justice.

"For anybody in the field, to have somebody seasoned in the profession that can give some guidance and support if you have questions on something, is a good resource, that's for sure, especially when you don't have a lot of other staff members," Riley Justice said.

To learn more about the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project, see the Web at For more information on the Alaska Administrator Coaching Project, see

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at