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by Robert Green

Quality Achievements

n CSD led the formation of the Alaska Quality Schools Coalition, and 12 school districts, in and out of Alaska, are replicating the Chugach model.

n Fourteen of 17 CSD graduates since 1994 have attended post-secondary institutions, as compared with one between 1975 and 1994.

n Results on the California Achievement Test rose dramatically: in reading, from the 28th percentile in 1995 to the 71st in 1999; in math, from 54th to 78th; and in language arts from 26th to 72nd.

n In the four subject areas tested in Alaska’s High School Graduation Qualifying Examination, CSD topped the state average.


On March 7, 2002, President George W. Bush and Commerce Secretary Don Evans presented five organizations with Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards in recognition of their performance excellence and quality achievements. Among the winners was Anchorage, Alaska’s Chugach School District, which won in the education category—becoming the smallest organization to win a Baldrige Award, in any category. Before 2001, there had been no winners in the education category.

Although it’s home to just 214 students, CSD encompasses 22,000 square miles in south central Alaska. And most of its students live in remote areas, accessible only by aircraft. Teachers have to be adept at a variety of subjects, including wilderness and cold-water safety and how to respond in the event of a tsunami or an encounter with a bear. District programs span from preschool to post-secondary education, serving students up to age 21.

CSD has pioneered a standards-based system of “whole child education” that emphasizes real-life learning situations. After securing a waiver from the Alaska Department of Education, the district replaced credit hours and grade levels—hallmarks of traditional schooling—with an individualized, student-centered approach. This approach aims for measurable and demonstrable proficiency in 10 areas of performance, from basic academic and career development skills to cultural awareness and character skills. CSD’s high school graduation requirements exceed Alaska’s requirements in many areas.

What follows is an interview with Richard DeLorenzo, the district’s superintendent of schools. This is the third of five interviews, conducted with a representative from each 2001 Baldrige Award winner, appearing in consecutive issues of Quality Digest.

QD: The Baldrige was awarded to the entire district. How long has the district been involved with the Baldrige criteria?

DeLorenzo: With the criteria itself, only a year and a half. We didn’t even know about the Baldrige Award until just two years ago. But, I do a lot of work based on the teachings of W. Edwards Deming. We’ve been doing the processes, tracking, data analysis, results and focus for eight years. But we didn’t put the umbrella over it until just a year and a half ago.

QD: When was it that you were first introduced to Deming and his works?

DeLorenzo: It was when I was a teacher. I was a special education teacher for a number of years, and I’ve always looked at how to make better systems because special education design in America doesn’t work for most kids.

Deming talked about everybody being a part of the answer; it’s usually the system’s fault. The climate of the educational environment is very sad. It’s backstabbing and counterproductive; there’s no focus. It’s just a routine that we follow because that’s how we’ve always done it. Education is just mired in mediocrity.

QD: Once you found out about the Baldrige Award, did you get any help from consultants?

DeLorenzo: I did some training myself and then hired a consultant to come and look at what we do. But she walked in and right away told me, “You’re crazy; you can’t go get this award.”

I said: “But you don’t understand what we’ve done. I mean, this is how I think; this is how the organization’s set up. All we’re doing is just changing the name of some of the categories. That’s all we’ve got to do, pure and simple.”

QD: What was it about your conditions that worried her?

DeLorenzo: The conditions we deal with are just unbelievable. When we do a breakfast program, it’s not like we go to the store and put it in the back of our truck and then bring it to the school. We have to order the food, pick it up in the van, take it to the airport and put it in an airplane, fly it 300 miles and then unload it. And then try to unfreeze the propane and get the lines to work right to be able to get the stove to work to cook the food to give it to the kids.

QD: Did you incur any difficulty in terms of getting the funding to go after the Baldrige award?

DeLorenzo: It’s very expensive for a public school system, especially when it’s our size, to pay for this. It was about $30,000 out of pocket. We’re very successful in getting soft money because of our hardships, conditions and poverty level. The state provided a $24,000 learning opportunity grant to implement standards in quality.

QD: Are there enough grants on the books for which school districts that are very serious about making a turnaround quality investment can apply and get the funds necessary to do something like you’ve done?

DeLorenzo: There are, but I think there’s always a need to have more. We also saved money by redesigning how we do business. We saved 30 percent of our dollars. We used to allocate 49 percent of our budget to administrative costs and now we have it down to 12 percent.

QD: What would you say was the greatest challenge in getting to the Baldrige level?

DeLorenzo: I think we won because we really reinvented how to do schools based on all the best practices that are out there. So when they talk about external benchmarking, that’s what we do. We do that just naturally as part of our organization.

I think one of the things we did right was taking apart everything we do and building it back up again. It looked entirely different.

One of the big barriers we had is the terminology from the Baldrige criteria. Here’s an example: The criteria talks about PDCA—plan, do, check, act. We call ours PDER (plan, do, evaluate, refine); it’s named after our late board president, Peter Falanhoff. This way it becomes personal to the people in my organization.

QD: Are there any areas where you think the education Baldrige criteria maybe doesn’t go far enough?

DeLorenzo: You can take a very traditional system and make it run very efficiently to get the award without really doing the innovation, the agility, the future focus. I think they need to have a category for vision: How is this dynamic vision driving what you’re doing? I think that’s got to be one of the categories for education. It’s currently one of the core values under visionary leadership, but it’s so weak.

QD: What are some quantifiable, quality-based results you’ve seen since your integration of quality and education?

DeLorenzo: As a district we were in the bottom quartile in basic skills, such as reading, writing and math, and within five years we rose to the top quartile, the 71st to 72nd to 75th percentile, after starting off 25th to 30th. I think that’s great, but more important, we look at other areas because testing deals with one aspect, but there’s also technology. Our kids all have laptops and they do Web pages.

We gauged our community in a year-long process, asking, “What do you really want for your kids?” They said they wanted basic skills, they wanted technology, they wanted character development, they wanted transition skills from school to life. Not just giving a kid a diploma and saying good luck. We built our vision on those concepts. In doing that we got rid of the Carnegie credits and we went to the performance level. So when you graduate from Chugach School District, your writing samples have to meet a certain level. Your technology has to able to do certain kinds of things. For career development, you have to have specific kinds of experiences.

QD: You’ve hit a huge milestone. What comes next for the school district?

DeLorenzo: We’ve created a foundation called the Reinventing Schools Coalition, and we want to have a national impact. We want to be central in state and national policy. We want to help other districts throughout America that want to change, that really want to be different in how they do business so all kids have a chance to reach their full potential and no child is left behind. That’s what I’m working on with different foundations right now.

QD: In the next five years, during the moratorium restricting organizations from applying within five years after winning, will you fill out an application as an assessment?

DeLorenzo: We’ll have critical friends, people who understand Baldrige criteria, come look at those areas. So we’ll take pieces of it. It’s a daunting task for an organization that only has 30 staff members. We were the smallest organization ever to get it, and we did it the quickest, and we’re the first in education, so we have a lot of milestones. A lot of it is just because we’ve been able to create a synergy within our organization to really achieve excellence. The challenge for us now is making it happen and scaling it to a large distance.

For more information about Chugach School District, visit www.chugach schools.com, call (907) 522-7400 or e-mail dtreece@chugachschools.com.

About the author

Robert Green is Quality Digest’s managing editor. Letters to the editor regarding this piece can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.