Education ‘cafes’ connect communities, ideas and action

Juneau educators, students and parents met at two local libraries Saturday and discussed how to give every Alaska student a quality K-12 education. The grassroots group Great Alaska Schools organized the two Community Cafés, one in the Mendenhall Valley Public Library and one in the Juneau Downtown Library.

These meetings, or cafés, weren’t about money. The point wasn’t to recruit people to call their legislators and ask for K-12 funding. It wasn’t even about showing people a slideshow of facts and figures.

Alyse Galvin, middle, is the co-founder of Great Alaska Schools. She led the discussion.
Alyse Galvin, middle, is the co-founder of Great Alaska Schools. She led the discussion at the Juneau Downtown Library on Saturday. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

Alyse Galvin co-founded Great Alaska Schools and led the talks.

“Today’s conversation is about gathering the people that we talked about: the parents, the students — you noticed there are a lot of students in there — educators, community members, anyone who cares about kids being ready for life coming together and saying, ‘Well, what would that look like if public education was doing the right thing for every student?’”

The café in the downtown library was in a little room with a tiny fruit and veggie buffet and little tables dressed up in red and white checkered tablecloths. It drew about 20 people including a Department of Education official, the Juneau School Board president and a couple of Juneau principals. But, there were also former educators, students and concerned neighbors.

“And the beauty of this particular meeting, called a café – it’s really not a meeting-meeting, it’s purposely called a Community Café — is that people feel level,” Galvin said. “They’re at the same level no matter whether they have 28 years teaching experience, or they’re a student that’s a freshman in high school.”

Galvin said her group wants all these people to give the Department of Education ideas on how schools can improve for all Alaska’s students.

Participants listen during the Great Alaska Schools Community Cafe in the Juneau Downtown Library, Saturday.
Participants listen during the Great Alaska Schools Community Café in the Juneau Downtown Library on Saturday. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

One of the questions she asked the café’s patrons to think about was:

“If we’re doing the job right, how would every student look? What would they have? What would they know?” Galvin asked.

She said normally to answer that question we’d look up students’ grades in math or reading.

“But what I’ve heard this morning in our café is, ‘Actually, we also care about whether students know how to collaborate, do students know how to do simple ‘life hacks’ they called it, like changing a tire or balancing a checkbook,” Galvin said. “There’s some things that are living skills. Do students know how to have healthy relationships?”

Galvin said these are examples of measurable skills that don’t get measured.

Great Alaska Schools has held these community cafés before in communities around the state. Galvin said not only did people have great ideas, they also followed up on them. As examples, she remembered programs started in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

“And people come out with ideas I would have never thought of, things like, ‘I’m an elder, I’ll come in and share stories.’ ‘I’m a community member. I’ll help build sleds after school because I heard students say they want more hands-on learning,’” she said. “We’ve had after-school programs like Spanish club that started from two years ago — a café. We have things like parents tutoring students after school that started from a café years ago.”

Galvin isn’t sure any of that would have happened if people weren’t invited to sit down and talk about their ideas.

She also encouraged people to volunteer at their local schools and to take an online survey the state launched to identify Alaskans’ education priorities.

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