Anchorage School Board candidate Q&A: Dora Wilson (Seat F)

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

DORA WILSON | Occupation: Community Outreach Manager / IBEW | Age: 49 |

1. Why are you running?

I believe education is the key to success and investing in our youth is an investment in our community. I believe all young people should have the opportunity for a good education and successful life. I am a first-generation college graduate and I want to make sure the opportunity for this next generation does not vanish. Kids deserve the right to hope and dream and achieve those dreams. This starts with an accessible and equitable public education.

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

I have lived in Anchorage for the past 25 years, raised three amazing children (now young adults) and my husband and I have been licensed therapeutic foster and adoptive parents for the past 16 years. I have a Master of Arts degree in Business Organizational Management. I am a member of the Resource Family Advisory Board as the AK Southcentral representative. This board was created by the Office of Children Services (OCS) with the purpose of advocating for resource families. I am a co-founder of AK Hopes & Dreams, providing free youth leadership summits to high school students. I have also worked with the Anchorage School Business Partnership Program for the past 20 years as a board member and advocated for strengthening partnerships between schools and the business community.

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

In my campaign, I have focused on transparent communication, career and life readiness and equity. I am an advocate for college, vocational technology, skilled trades and apprenticeships, with a unique perspective and experience in each of these areas. As a member of the school board I will continue to spend time in the schools, gaining firsthand knowledge of how things work and asking for input on how policy can improve the communication and process in the schools. We must welcome the opportunity to be inclusive, make appropriate accommodations and celebrate the assets of every student.

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?

The global pandemic has shown us the many strengths and flaws in our system. ASD was able to provide computers to all students that indicated they did not have one and they assisted families in gaining access to internet. Using the Zoom option to provide synchronous lessons was positive progression, particularly after it was evident that asynchronous lessons were not very successful. What I think could have been done differently was to provide clear communication in a timely manner for opening and closing of schools. These decisions should be based on local guidelines and current transmission data. The plan to have kids returning to school changed too often. Parents and the community did not have a substantial guide regarding what metric the district was going to use to return kids to school. When it comes to decisions that involve student and staff safety, clear communication of expectations and values is imperative.

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

The root of a strong community is a strong public education system. The youth that we foster the growth of today are the future leaders of tomorrow. We hear frequently from all sides of the political spectrum that there is a lot of work to be done to improve our student outcomes. This problem starts with an undervalued education system. At a statewide level, we have seen the funding of education being consistently used as a political football. Our children are watching, and they see that their futures are not being valued from the top level down in our community. Until we can step forward and agree to leave the political fighting out of education, we will continue to see outcomes that do not reflect the Anchorage values that I know and love.

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

If I could change one thing in the Anchorage School District, it would be to create a plan to make preschool a universal expectation in our school district. This would improve long-term success rates for students. Preschool is not currently equally accessible to students and families, despite research showing its high level of importance.

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

Looking at student performance based on demographics, there is data showing lower scores for particular groups of students from the time they enter kindergarten that ultimately correlate with low graduation rates among the same identified groups. In areas of concern, efforts to measure and monitor student performance and needs must happen from the beginning of the year onward throughout the year, with adaptations made as needed based on short-term successes and failures. Acknowledging there is a problem is key, and performance measures need to be put in place and kept at the forefront of the conversation.

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

Recent years of state-level politics have made it clear that education is not a top priority in the budget. The global pandemic, coupled with low oil price increases, strained our economy and created a budget shortfall for Alaska. Within the district, we must commit to using what we have efficiently. My experience in business drives my desire to ensure that we are prioritizing our budget in a way that is student-focused. There is also an amazing asset that I do not believe has been fully utilized by the Anchorage School District to date – the community of Anchorage. On the school board, I will strengthen these community partnerships and dive deeper into efficiencies to help our district meet the needs of students.

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

The school district does a great job of creating pathways for youth that are planning to move to a university setting after graduation. However, there is more work to be done in providing pathways to the many opportunities in the vast number of career options like skilled trades, vocational technology and apprenticeship. It is important to educate students about these pathways at an earlier age. The earlier students are exposed to a variety of career fields, the more relevant subjects become.

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?

There are numerous things that have been learned due to adapting to changes during the pandemic. We have truly normalized how to have meetings without being face-to-face, or even being in the same building. It has been a great learning lesson for all of us. Working remotely can be done successfully in certain situations. When students need to miss school, for whatever reason, there are now tools in place to accommodate those students. This has also been an opportunity for staff to get top-notch professional development using online platforms, which has proven to be more cost effective. It will also be an opportunity to save on the cost of travel and hotel for outside resources the district contracts out to for services.

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

Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability. The brain develops rapidly and builds the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life. Early childhood education is the most efficient way to build a highly educated, skilled workforce. Expanding preschool options for children would be an investment in the future success of our students.

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

King Tech High School does amazing work giving students the hands-on opportunities to help them select and deselect career paths. Expanding pathways at the other high schools in the district would make these opportunities more accessible to a wider range of students, particularly those students that are not able to attend King Tech or have been discouraged to do so. Seventy percent of our students do not choose the college path to go on to pursue a college degree. Partnering with businesses, organizations and industry that can help educate students on these industries is an important aspect to developing appropriate career and technology education curriculum in their respected fields.

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 issue of achievement gaps in the district have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The overall academic achievement of students and low graduation rates for many of our students of color are issues that need to be kept at the forefront of conversation. We need to continually work with the community to identify gaps that exist and ways to provide supports that each student needs in order to achieve their own success.

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

In determining class size there are many considerations. Among these considerations are goals, resources and considering the needs of the specific population and other demographics being served. When considering Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) you are always looking at every possible way to keep that PTR ratio as low as possible, because I understand how important it is to keep the ratio as low as possible. Since the pandemic began, it has been evident that face-to-face contact is extremely important for all students, but particularly for the students that have proven to be the lowest performers.

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

Discussing changing start times for students at elementary, middle and high school is an issue that has been reviewed by the current administration and school board. Anchorage is a unique a community and it was determined that the community was not in favor of changing the current start times for students at any level. Any future changes to start times for students would require the input of the families, staff and community members that would be affected.

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?

Employees are the best recruiters. I have talked to many teachers that have addressed their concerns about the lack of security and retirement benefits. We have lost many educators who seek better long-term security. Working to improve the teacher retirement system would give educators more incentive to stay. Recruitment is always made easier when retention improves.

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?

Transparent communication is a top priority of my campaign. The decisions related to the pandemic have made clear that there are not enough avenues to ensure effective communication between the school board and the Anchorage community. I would ask the ASD to determine current better/best practices for listening to and communicating with students, families, staff and teachers. It is the job of the board to act in the interest of students, staff, and parents and it will be much easier to act on their behalf if we collectively are more in-tune with the ideas, questions and concerns as they arise. As a member of the school board, I commit to reaching out and encouraging more partnership and greater connections within the community.

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

For the past 20 years I have spent a tremendous amount of time in Anchorage schools as a mom, Therapeutic Foster Parent, School Business Partner and even as a district employee. This has given me the opportunity to get to know staff and it has given me a firsthand look at the dedication and commitment of educators. This experience helps me to be better informed when making decisions, because I am able to talk directly to the stakeholders and know what the issues are. I believe it is important to spend time in the schools and develop relationships in the community to work together to improve the success of all of our youth.