Anchorage School Board candidate Q&A: Judy Norton Eledge (Seat B)

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

JUDY NORTON ELEDGE | Occupation: Retired | Age: 74 |

1. Why are you running?

I decided to run for school board because of my concerns about what is happening in our schools. This past year has been devastating for many in our community. Many students, parents and teachers are frustrated about the complete lockdown of our schools to in-class learning and feel their voices were not heard or considered. Many others, as I, are concerned about the low academic achievement for many of our students. Many in our community are concerned that our children are being taught values they do not share, whether it be curriculum or mandates from the federal government. I want to be the voice for all of those frustrated students, parents and teachers.

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

As a retired teacher and principal in both ASD and rural Alaska I bring with me a very diverse background. After retirement I spent 15 years working as a coach and mentor in low performing schools in rural Alaska, often sleeping on a classroom floor to do so. I didn’t do that because I was not passionate about children. I bring the most diverse educational background to any candidate running or currently on the board. The Anchorage School District, students, parents and the community need that experience. Most of all, I care deeply about the success of all students in the ASD and ensuring they have the skills necessary for a productive life.

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

That every student graduating from ASD will have the skills necessary to accomplish any dream or endeavor they so wish, and to become a productive citizen of this great city, state and country.

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?

I would give them a C- overall. There didn’t seem to be much of a consistent plan and that is what I would have focused on the most. District leadership should have met over the summer to write a consistent plan for all schools to open. There are words written down but the application has not been logical in many cases. Some teachers did an excellent job in online learning and others not so good. There is absolutely no excuse for ASD to have been closed to in-person learning as it was and still is. It has been devastating for many students and their families. Families that had to work for a living were in a crisis with students not in school. Many of the most affected students were those the most in need. It is difficult to explain how private schools and schools an hour away can be opened for months, and ASD still not have their middle and high school students participating in in-class school. We could have opened with a phased-in plan and much sooner than we have done.

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

According to ASD’s own website, almost 60% of fourth graders are not reading at grade level. That was in 2019 when they were last tested. Can you imagine what it will be now after almost a year out of in-person schooling?

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

Stop trying to be everything to everyone. Our school system seems to be more worried about social trends than academic achievement. Teachers are overwhelmed with all the policies, curriculum and special interest groups affecting their classrooms daily. When a system begins teaching values that differ from those of the families of their students, those families become frustrated and no longer trust the system.

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

The inconsistency in teacher training, knowledge and skills is huge. ASD currently has made enormous steps in training and holding teachers accountable in the area of reading. But there is resistance from teachers. Academic freedom does not mean a teacher can teach whatever curriculum they wish to teach. Teachers have to be accountable for academic achievement for the students in their classrooms. I also think we should look at returning “modified primary” to schools where students not ready for first grade can have an additional year. If a child does not read by third grade it is very unlikely they ever will. Social promotion in K-2 must stop. All in-service days and continuing educational credits given should be with the above requirement in mind.

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

ASD must begin to look at ways to cut costs. The State of Alaska can no longer continue to fund education as in the past. How can the ASD budget be larger than the municipal budget? When I hear a school board member state there is a $7 million budget shortfall for student transportation because we wanted to keep our employees employed this past year, and so we delivered lunches and chrome computers by bus I am appalled. How is that being efficient?

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

I am not aware of any I would change but I most certainly would analyze any new curriculums and directives such as the 1619 History project being proposed in many schools nationwide. I would also consider looking at schools that are high performing and investigate curriculum they are using. Just because curriculum experts do not like a curriculum does not mean it is not effective, such as Saxon Math.

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?

I like choice in education. I believe that distance learning could be effective for many students, especially in upper grades, and have no objection to it being continued.

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

I do not believe there needs to be better preschool options than we have. Many would like to increase funding for preschool, but I remind them that money from the state will continue to be less and less, and we need to be focused on K-12.

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

Seventy five percent of students in the state of Alaska do not attend or complete a four-year degree program. I believe there should be career and technical education curriculum in ALL schools, not just King Tech High School. I also believe it should start very early in a child’s education. I also would like to see more apprenticeships offered for credit by working with local organizations.

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?

Achievement gaps have persisted in education for many years. There is only one way to close that gap. That is to have the same high academic achievement for every student that walks into a classroom. One of my greatest accomplishments in education was working with a rural school who was one of the lowest performing in the state of Alaska. Students were 99% Native Alaskans and economically low. In six years, we were able to accomplish every student (cognitively capable) reading at grade level. We have to stop using as an excuse a child’s race, ethnic group or economic background for their low performance. It is absolutely the worst injustice we can do. I do support a more robust effort to recruit teachers and other professionals that resemble our students’ backgrounds.

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

The only changes I would like to see are in the K-2 classrooms. I would like for their sizes to always stay around 20.

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

I believe start times should follow the research. High school students should be able to begin later in the day. I believe all school days for students in upper elementary to high school should be lengthened and so should the school year. It is archaic that we do not teach year-round. The U.S. has one of the shortest school years than many other industrialized countries.

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?

I believe the Anchorage School District retains its teachers at a much higher rate than the rest of Alaska. I also believe teachers want to be part of the decision-making and when they are, they tend to stay longer.

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?

I do believe any organization can improve its transparency and do not believe many parents think the district is transparent. They often find out about curriculum changes and other changes after they happen. Much of the community “input” given is by select individuals that tend to share the same values as the district wishes. Often times those “committees” have more educators than parents on them. I do not think there is enough time given to discussions with varying opinions. In our world today, many conservatives feel their voices are not being heard and when as parents, they raise concerns, they are labeled. That absolutely has to stop.

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

As a large district it is very difficult to keep an atmosphere of community. I would like to look at ways to divide the district into smaller districts per area of community when discussing issues. Not all areas of the city have the same concerns and issues. I would suggest looking into other larger but more successful districts and investigate ways that make students, parents and teachers feel valued and their voices heard. I believe many of ours do not.