Anchorage School Board candidate Q&A: Elisa Vakalis (Seat G)

The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for Anchorage School Board to answer a series of issue questions. Read all of them here.

ELISA VAKALIS (Incumbent) | Occupation: ASD and self employed | Age: 42 |

1. Why are you running?

I am passionate about improving education for our children. As someone who was born and raised here, I also want to continue giving back to the community that raised me through my public service.

2. Why are you qualified to serve as an Anchorage School Board member?

I have served on the school board for almost 6 years. Through that time I have learned about how ASD operates, educates, budgets and where the opportunities for improvement are. I have proven that I can effectively keep politics out my my decisions. There is no learning curve for me, I am ready to lead from Day One.

3. What’s your vision for education in Anchorage?

I have long believed in the ASD mission statement, as it mirrored my own at home. “Educate ALL kids for success in life” is my vision and continued mission. Helping close achievement gaps will make that mission statement for ALL kids come true.

4. How would you rate the school district’s performance during the pandemic — protecting public health, delivering quality education services, serving the community? What specifically would you have done differently?

There was never a win-win for students and families over the last year. Hindsight will always be the greatest teacher and there will be much we can learn from this experience. Today, I think we did the very best we could. The next chapter in this journey is incredibly important. We need to ensure that there are maximum opportunities for our kids to make up the lost learning and get the supports they need. If elected, I will advocate for all students to have equity in access and opportunities.

5. What do you believe is the single most important issue facing the Anchorage School District? How would you address it if elected?

The learning loss of the last year. Our students have lost education, mental health stability, sports and senior year experiences, and the joys of being in the classroom. Getting students back in the classroom safely is my priority, as well as looking forward to a robust summer school program and fall return to school. I refuse to accept that one lost year can’t be made up.

6. If I could change one thing in the Anchorage School District, it would be _____. Explain.

This is something I have been working on for the last year. “Student outcomes won’t change, until adult behaviors change.” I want this district to be student outcome-focused. I have a healthy respect for the adults in the equation, I just believe that the student needs should come first. This is not the ASD culture or focus as a school board. I am committed to keeping students first.

7. Do you have areas of concern about student achievement in the Anchorage School District? What are your specific suggestions for improvement?

Our reading proficiency scores are low. That is one of the main components to our newly adopted goals and guardrails. In five years, we want to double the reading proficiency from 40% to 80%. It will take an aggressive approach by staff and a concerted effort by the community. The Life, College, and Career goal is rooted in community support that when a student leaves out district they are prepared for their life, no matter the direction. I support our community guided goals and guardrails.

8. What are your thoughts on the current and proposed Anchorage School District budgets?

We recently adopted the budget and the ESSR2 funds saved us from a significant shortfall. While we are lucky to have the funds, the idea that we are keeping 235 teaching positions with one-time funds is concerning. We will have to address major shortfalls in the coming years. I support the use of these funds, however, as they will be used as intended, to open schools, address learning loss, pay for technology, curriculum, or other learning supports. As a board member who has served as treasurer and finance committee chair, I am prepared to tackle any budget questions to ensure future budgets support children’s learning outcomes.

9. Are there specific curriculum changes you would advocate? Describe them and the reason you want to see a change.

We need a full curriculum audit. While we have adopted an ELA and math curriculum, we need to look at all curriculum in the district, from PK-12. Over the years, there have been a couple big changes, and several small ones. There is no appropriate way to answer this question without an audit to know the value and expected outcomes of what we already have.

10. The school district used distance learning extensively over the past year. Once in-person classes fully return, would you like to see continuing or additional distance-learning options offered?

One of the highlights of the pandemic and online learning was the opportunity for students to have access to an online experience that they otherwise might not have tried. While we recognize it may not have been ideal for most students, it was for others. I support keeping online-only options going forward. From another perspective, while we feel like we are the downhill side of this pandemic, we do not truly know that. Having the programs and access that were created over the last year can also act as insurance policy.

11. Does Anchorage need better preschool options for children? If not, what are your suggestions for improvement?

Yes. There is no question or doubt. I have been advocating for more Pre-K options for years.

12. What steps should ASD take to improve its career and technical education curriculum?

ASD has come along way over recent years in CTE. I was proud to support King Tech becoming an accredited high school. Students should have a plethora of options as they pursue their dreams. I support both the college and the CTE paths.

13. Achievement gaps persist in the Anchorage School District among economic, racial and ethnic groups of students. What would you do to address the gaps and what should the district do to close them?

The best thing I can do as a board member is to keep the achievement gap at the front of the conversation. We are looking at our policies and procedures already, but the process to make systemic changes won’t happen overnight. The pandemic served to further shine a light on the inequities. The district has many wonderful partners in the community that are also focused on the gaps, and by working together we can make changes at a community level as well as an educational institution level.

14. Are you happy with current class sizes in the district? Would you suggest specific changes?

I would love lower class sizes! As someone who has worked on the budget in-depth over the last six years, I can tell you it is not easy. We have had flat funding with annually growing expenses. It is an annual dance of how to improve our programs wile keeping a balanced budget.

15. Are you happy with current school start times and the length of school days? Explain.

When the district had this discussion on school start time a few years ago, it was split. There was no consensus on the issue. I am not opposed to going back to the community and asking again. I do believe we need longer school days and years. We are at the bottom of classroom time and we can do better. More time that students have with their teachers can only help when it comes to scores and learning stability.

16. Is the Anchorage School District currently doing a good job of retaining quality teachers? What steps, if any, should the school board take to improve teacher retention?

This last year resulted in teachers having to make some difficult choices. I am sure we lost some good teachers due to the pandemic and their personal circumstances, but we still have many incredible ones. As we move forward, we will be focused on a more diverse staff that can better represent our student population. Teacher retention comes more from a classroom or work experience than just a simple contract negotiation. There are some things the board can change and others not so easily. If reelected to the board, I remain committed to finding and retaining the very best educators for our students.

17. Please discuss your commitment to transparency and open government as it relates to the school board and Anchorage School District. Would you push for changes?

In my first year as a board member I advocated for the creation of the data dashboard to improve transparency with our information to the public. Today, there are several ways for the public to see what we are doing as a district. I believe we need, as a board, to focus on more two-way conversation with the public to better understand the issues and desires of our community. I have always been a huge advocate for transparency and accountability.

18. What other important issue would you like to discuss?

The importance of governance versus management and how it impacts student outcomes.