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District : Sitka School District

State : Alaska

Level : P-12

District Enrollment : 1,001-10,000 students

Community Type : Rural

Related Tags : community engagement, Connectivity, technology infrastructure

Embracing the Power of Digital Learning

The Sitka School District is a K-12 public school district serving 1,300 students who live in Sitka, Alaska. There are 5 schools in the Sitka School District – 2 elementary schools with 1 school serving students in grades K-1 and the other serving students in grades 2-5, 1 middle school serving students in grades 6-8, and 2 high schools serving students in grades 9-12 with one being an alternative high school. Additionally, the Sitka School District has a K-12 homeschool program for our students, and provides pre-K programming to students through a unique partnership with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Head Start operated by Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Approximately 25% of students in the Sitka School District are of Alaska Native heritage and are primarily Tlingit. Picturesque and welcoming, Sitka is one of the top five largest cities in Alaska with about 9,000 residents. Sitka is located on the western edge of Baranof Island and faces the Gulf of Alaska. Sitka was the capital city during the Russian occupation, and is the location where the transfer of Alaska from Russia to America occurred. Sitka has a strong sense of community and commitment to their students. Sitkans live on a rock at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and they know what is important in life!

The Challenge

Six years ago the Sitka High School student council approached the school board with a resolution asking them to invest in technology in order to prepare them for their future. At the time of this resolution, the Sitka School District did not have a wireless network, it took 20-minutes for students at the middle school to log into the server, and it took an administrator password for a student to print from a district computer at the high school. These examples along with others meant that teachers were not using digital tools nor did they have a vision about using digital tools to support and enhance learning. The school board listened to the students and acted by establishing a school board goal related to the use of technology in the learning process, which was backed up with a significant increase in the technology budget. Within two years, 90% of the teachers were at least proficient in all of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for Teachers, and student-centered learning using digital tools in meaningful ways was a reality throughout the district! Teachers were eager to embrace the power of digital learning in this place with a strong sense of historical and cultural significance that also valued the role of Arts in everyday life. Additionally, the Sitka School District wanted to ensure that with a focus on the new standards they did not lose sight of the context that makes learning meaningful.

The Solution

The Sitka School District was faced with a need to solve the complex challenge of transforming an entire school district in a short amount of time so that students in every classroom throughout the district had the opportunity to learn content in ways that prepared them for their future. In order to accomplish this challenge, they implemented a three-pronged approach to create a paradigm shift in thinking about how teachers could use digital tools to help students create, collaborate, and learn content at a deep level. They started by creating a living example that brought the vision of digital learning to the classroom down the hall and the dinner table conversation (Turning Our Schools Inside Out! Title IID Competitive Grant). Secondly, each teacher was required to join a Professional Learning Community (PLC) that discussed a specific topic of interest to the teacher (e.g., Curriculum Mapping with Web 2.0 Tools, Geospatial Technologies, Learning through Gaming), and teachers were provided time within his or her workday to meet and were given a book of the PLC’s choosing to use as a resource. Thirdly, each classroom was equipped with interactive learning tools, and provided extensive professional development to each teacher by a cadre of teachers who provided initial instruction, as well facilitated on-going discussions.

With teachers throughout the district using technology in meaningful ways, the focus shifted to how to support teachers as they more fully integrated the use of digital tools into their everyday classroom learning experiences. To accomplish this goal they built upon existing areas of strength that were also in need of explicit integration support; as they worked to integrate the new content standards in English Language Arts and Math, they wanted to make explicit the context that makes learning meaningful. Specifically, Sitka is world renowned for their Arts experiences with the Sitka Summer Music Festival and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp being two examples of excellence in the Arts. Additionally, Sitka has been a strong and influential leader in the area of Alaska Native rights, with Sitka being the location of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp #1 and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska being an integral part of the community. The school district provided instruction in both Arts and Culture to our students; however, they needed to expand their integration of these areas so that every student had the opportunity to learn content in a manner that respected the place in which we live and the values of the community.

They created Arts, Culture, and Technology (ACT) Standards, and are developing an ACT Curriculum complete with vetted model lessons and videos that tell the story of each lesson’s impact on learning.

• ARTS: Students actively participate as creators, contributors, and consumers of music, dance, theater, visual and media arts, and creative writing.
• CULTURE: Students are knowledgeable about and demonstrate respect for traditional Alaska Native values, life skills, and art forms.
• TECHNOLOGY: Students have access to high quality learning with technology, giving them skills and knowledge to participate as active, creative members in a respectful, interconnected world.

Along with the ACT Standards, they identified a foundational belief that guides all of their work in this area: Arts, Culture, and Technology are essential to the learning experiences of all Sitka students, and must be woven into the curriculum. They also identified targeted developmental experiences for ranges of life:

• 0-4: Playing and Making – Children explore a world rich in sound, touch, stories, taste, and smell through free play, tactile interactions, language, and doing, as they experience the world around them
• 5-7: Recognizing and Creating – Children work on projects, identify self, family, and community, and begin to share and connect with others often with narrative and purpose
• 8-10: Connecting and Applying – Youth develop individuality, see beyond themselves, develop inter-dependence, and think abstractly with purpose and audience
• 11-13: Exploring and Focusing – Youth expand their experience-base, and develop specific skills through a wide variety of structured choice and shared experiences
• 14-17: Self-Identifying and Concentrating – Individuals develop a personal relationship with Arts, Culture, and Technology, and practice the disciplines
• 18+: Participating, Producing, and Contributing – Individuals are actively involved in Arts, Culture, and Technology

Their goal is to ensure that every student in the district has the opportunity to explore, develop, and learn through the lens of Arts, Culture, and Technology. It should be noted that at the time when the students approached the school board a number of schools were in School Improvement status; however, the story is different today. As they look to the future they know that students will graduate with the skills they need to be successful creative contributors and collaborators in the connected world in which we all live. Students will not be limited in career and life options even though they choose to live on a rock at the edge of the ocean with 14 miles of road end to end, and instead they are achieving the district’s vision of educating children to realize their potential and contribute in a connected global society.


  • Support early adopters so they can show the value of learning with digital tools.
  • Provide professional development that lets teachers explore and find their own passion.
  • Build on what is already working.

Additional Resources

From Sitka School District:

  • Read the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) Case Study about our Title IID Grant
  • Learn about Sitka School District Technology Plan
  • From the U.S. Department of Education:

    District Point of Contact

    Dr. Mary Wegner, Superintendent
    Phone: (907) 966-1251