In their own words: School Board Seat D Incumbent Panganga Pungowiyi
NN: What are your qualifications and why do you want to re-run for School Board?
Panganga Pungowiyi: Student success should be the first priority of any candidate running. Student success is the driving factor for any decision, beginning with choosing to run. A desire to help all students succeed is my first qualification.
I come from a family of educators. I am familiar with the challenges faced by educators in villages and hub communities because my mother has worked in both. I volunteered in her classroom during my breaks from Mount Edgcumbe and after I graduated from high school. I understand the importance of the community involvement.
I have experience both working in and attending schools in rural Alaska. I understand the challenges our students face, ranging from connectivity issues to taking standardized tests and prepackaged curriculum with information not consistently relevant to where or how we live. My work in rural schools as a tutor and as a janitor has taught me adaptability. Often resources were limited and we had to work with what we had.
I have experience serving on boards/committees both in Nome and other communities. As a former board member of the Bering Sea Women’s Group, and a current member of the Nome Community Center Board I am familiar with governing non-profit organizations in Nome.
My work in suicide and substance abuse prevention informs my decisions as a board member. Working in prevention involves a lot of research and data-driven decision making. The programs I work with are rooted in strengthening what protects our youth and preventing the things that hurt our youth. Many of these factors are affected by the policies within our own organizations, including the school.
I have a passion for policy and systems. Because of the nature of my work, I have developed a passion for policy development and for fine tuning systems to create better results. I become excited because I know that good policies and informed decisions help students succeed.
NN: Describe your experience with education in Nome and highlight the changes you’d like to see in the Nome School District.
Panganga Pungowiyi: I have experience working with the school district in many capacities. Community partnership has given me many opportunities to work directly with youth. Through my work I helped with the Leaders of Life program, which empowers youth to help themselves, each other and the community. My colleagues and I have been invited into classrooms to discuss local and statewide history, traditional knowledge, healthy relationships and healthy self-image. We have shown films, reenacted historical moments, and connected students to local resources.
I have also been given the opportunity to work directly with Nome Public Schools educators and staff in partnership as well as providing education/training during in-service and orientation. I was asked to serve on a committee when the school received funding for CRESL (Culturally Responsive Social and Emotional Learning). And more recently I was appointed to the Nome School Board after an interview of six candidates.
Through these many experiences I have been able to observe the strengths and challenges of the Nome School District. The best way to change anything is to assess what is working already. What I see now is a school district who has begun and continued to make positive changes. Over the last few years I have seen community partners involved in the education of our youth. The youth are being given the opportunity to build relationships with local organizations and are learning about things relevant to our area. I am encouraged when I see youth learning about how to gather and store local foods. I am always happy to see Brownie, the reindeer, visiting youth while they learn about the corral. If we continue building on the strengths of these partnerships we will continue moving in the right direction.
Nome is a small, rural community and its challenges are similar to other rural hub communities. We are challenged with tighter budgets, higher costs, higher staff turnover and lower graduation rates than our urban school districts. All of these issues affect the success of our students. We must change the approach we take to resolving these issues. I often hear that we have been talking about the same challenges for decades. We cannot continue to do business as usual and expect these things to change on their own.
We need to talk about how we can build on local strengths to resolve our challenges. The system in place recruits educators from outside of the State and does not do enough to integrate them into the community or support them. We need to work with community partners to support new recruits so they become part of the community. We also need to work with community partners to support our students so we can build our own educators and administrators.
The school needs to be accountable to the community. When a parent or other stakeholder brings up an issue or concern, the school needs to listen and then take a community driven approach to resolving the issue. As a community member, I have heard of and witnessed disregard for parent and stakeholder concerns and issues. This is unacceptable and cannot happen. We must be open to change, and the change should be community driven. We cannot let our own biases or believes hinder us from making decisions that will lead to student success.
NN: Recent release of PEAKS (Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools) test scores showed a low level of Nome students’ proficiency in language and math. How do you propose to improve this performance?
My experience in prevention has taught me to ask why before assuming we know the answer. Why are Nome students showing low proficiency in language and math? If you look at the scores for each school individually you will find that the Nome Elementary levels of proficiency are much lower than those in Nome Beltz. Nome Beltz scores are also much lower than Anvil City’s. Why?
We need to consider potential factors along with curriculum and teacher performance. We need to assess and consider social factors, such as access to nutrition, transportation and housing. We need to consider practical factors. When I was in elementary school, I was asked what kind of trees an acorn came from. I didn’t have oak trees where I grew up and so I answered incorrectly. Standardized tests are not designed for rural Alaska.
Before making any assumptions I would suggest that as a School District Nome find a method of assessing why this could be, because just based on the scores alone we cannot know how to improve performance.
NN: Budget constraints are to be expected as the state budget contracts annually. How do you propose the school district prepares for decreasing budget realities as costs rise?
Panganga Pungowiyi: I have said it before and I will continue to say that local partnerships are the solution to an unpredictable state budget. Local organizations and knowledge bearers are eager to help our students succeed. Organizations have contributed time and materials to the schools, and often are willing to contribute more.
NN: What are your thoughts for improving recruitment efforts to find and keep new teachers?
Panganga Pungowiyi: When we talk about this issue we should first take a look at how we are recruiting folks to begin with. I was on a plane just this week when I overheard a woman talking about how she had taken a job as a rural Alaskan teacher on a whim because she was feeling adventurous. This is no judgment on the educator. This is on us as a school district. Historically schools in rural Alaska and other rural areas of the world have used adventure and tourism as a marketing technique for recruiting teachers. This needs to stop. We are not recruiting tourists. We want to attract people who will stay in our communities. If we want to find educators who will invest their lives into our community and into our students we need to invest more time and resources into appropriate recruitment and retention. Additionally, we need to support the professional development of people who are already invested in our community. High turnover is a barrier to student success. We need a strong and sustainable team of local educators and administrators. We need teachers who have grown from our community and teachers who have grown into our community.