Anchorage School Board candidate Q&A: Kelly Lessens (Seat B)

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

KELLY LESSENS | Seat B | Age: 40 |

1. Why are you running?

I’m running for Seat B to improve student outcomes by prioritizing student wellness, equity and evidence-based learning practices.

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

My experiences with leading ASD60 and in serving as the parent liaison to ASD’s Wellness Pilot gave me firsthand experiences in understanding how school board members’ leadership has a direct bearing on the priorities that are laid before the administration. I’m the only candidate for Seat B intending to make decisions and allocate resources with respect to promoting the whole child; with a track record that has improved student outcomes in ASD; who is a parent with children currently enrolled in ASD and who understands the challenges that Zoom-based school entailed; who has promoted evidence-based, equitable return-to-school frameworks; who has sought out community members’ values throughout this campaign; and who is committed to pursuing the resources that students need to succeed.

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

We must build all students’ capacity for informed civic participation, for empathy, for critical thinking and for creating a society in which everyone truly belongs. We must prepare children to collaborate, innovate and apply different forms of knowledge throughout their lives. These goals depend on leaders who will advocate for equity and for excellence during children’s formative years. It requires leaders who place children’s needs at the center of our education system, who will buttress those priorities with school and community assets and who will call for the resources required to get the job done.

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?

ASD grappled with unheard-of challenges this year, but what was ultimately missing was a common language, or framework, centered on a commitment to evidence-based decision making. In July, I publicly proposed an equitable, evidence-based return to school policy that would have prioritized socially-distanced, in-person education of elementary-aged students by taking over all available ASD real estate. It was not a perfect proposal, and offered some challenges, but it was a start for out-of-the-box problem solving. In November, I spoke against giving the district a blank check to return to school without a metric in place. The most recent CDC guidelines recognize that school transmission is associated with community transmission. I want ASD’s metrics to reflect the CDC’s latest updates and commit to the idea that returning to school should take place when community transmission is under control and is being suppressed.

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

Restoring trust in the district’s leadership. Within ASD and between ASD and the community, many people are deeply frustrated with ASD’s toxic positivity, with their frequent, unilateral rollouts of new and often expensive programs, and with decision-making that is not always transparent. Because the board members are elected to give leadership to the administration, I would place a very clear emphasis on ASD’s need to engage in genuine collaborations with different members of the community -- parents, teachers, subject matter experts and community members at large -- while placing a heavy expectation that the administration’s decisions will, above all, benefit student wellness, equity and learning.

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

One issue is special education. When I’ve spoken to families of students with special needs, they are exhausted and overwhelmed with ongoing needs to advocate. Many would benefit from a formal liaison in ASD, informal support groups and additional blended preschool options. When I’ve spoken to SPED teachers, it’s become clear that they, too, have concrete needs. SPED teachers often leave teaching entirely after only 3-5 years due to burnout. This could be addressed through a commitment to ensuring that staffing needs are fully met; formal mentorship opportunities; additional prep time to adequately design interventions for their students; consistent, planned and coordinated cycles of professional development; and the provision of up-to-date, research-based curricular materials.

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

We know that this year has exacerbated gaps in student achievement. We’ll need to figure out where every student is at and then focus on in-person opportunities for students to accelerate their learning. Between May and August, I would use ESSR II funds to provide summer school “acceleration academies” (8-12 kids/group over 1-2 week spans) and/or frequent, short-duration high-intensity tutoring with very small groups of students and instructors, which could continue into the school year. During the 2021-2022 academic year, I would cap K-3 classrooms at under 15 students and grades 4-8 at 25 students. Finally, I would want to crowdsource ASD’s educators as to how they think we can use the district’s increased tech capacity for digital literacy, student engagement and project-based learning.

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

Thanks to an influx of federal funds, ASD’s FY 21-22 budget does not reflect years of inadequate funding. We didn’t have to ask for millions of dollars in supplemental funds, or figure out which cuts would hurt kids the least. ASD is asked to educate large numbers of children who are fundamentally under-prepared to enter the K-12 system, who enter school with high rates of poverty, language deficiencies, adverse childhood experiences, and/or need IEPs. ASD has not yet funded evidence-based pupil to teacher ratios, and is unable to provide SPED and ELL programs the resources, staffing, and professional development they need. It’s time for the Legislature to adjust the BSA and for the State to adjust ASD’s “Cost Factor.”

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

One area I’m keen on improving is to integrate social-emotional learning throughout all curricular options. For employers, SEL skills are rated as the most important to success, but are hardest to find. Supporting them in K-12 relates positively to all of the traditional measures we care about: attendance, grades, test scores, graduation rates, success in college, more engaged citizenship and better overall well-being. So in math, for instance, students can be taught to present their thinking, consider others’ perspectives, make and learn from mistakes and receive suggestions from peers. In history, literature, or science, students can be taught to reflect on ethical and moral choices that people have made. SEL needs to be a fundamental part of the entire school day.

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?

Not outside of ASD’s home school (charter) options.

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

Yes. ASD needs additional preschool options, including blended programs (which integrate students with special needs alongside general-education students), to increase options for all families and improve kindergarten readiness, district-wide. Only 18% of our kindergarteners enter having mastered all 13 DEED competencies assessing kindergarten readiness. Meanwhile, 23% of Anchorage-area children between 0-5 are in unlicensed care facilities, and another 18% of families with children in this age range have unmet needs for child care. Nationwide, evidence has shown that every dollar invested in quality early childhood programs yields returns between $4-$16, increases high school graduation rates and decreases suspension, grade-retention and needs for social services or special education.

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

ASD should expose students to a variety of career and technical options early, perhaps as soon as middle school. This can take place through field trips to work sites or training facilities, the creation of ongoing mentorship-based connections to local CTE organizations and increasing the numbers of options (like apprenticeship programs) within King Tech.

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?

Preschool opportunities loom large as a long-term, structural solution to decrease the achievement and opportunity gaps. So do class size caps, especially for K-3, an emphasis on social-emotional learning, and culturally-responsive curricular materials. Other structural improvements can be made, too, like drawing school boundaries so that students with low-SES households are brought into low-poverty schools. Gifted education can be reimagined to have less gatekeeping in the early years and incorporate underrepresented students in the honors/AP pipeline. I expect to consider this question regularly as a board member, and will value community members’ input!

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

ASD needs to follow evidence-based protocols and cap K-3 classrooms at less than 15 students and classrooms for grades 4-8 at 25 students to promote real improvements in reading. In addition, it needs to provide all teachers with the ongoing professional development they need to properly assess and meet all students’ needs.

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

No. Our start times do not reflect the best available evidence that high school students’ academic achievement will improve with start times that correspond to their circadian rhythms. The length of the school day and/or year is another area that I’m concerned with. The reason ASD60 had so much trouble advocating for kids’ basic needs for recess and physical activity is the pervasive sense that there’s too much to accomplish in a given 6.5-hour school day. Even students’ bathroom breaks are stressful for teachers to arrange! I’d be open to learning more about anything we could do (with respect to school days and/or academic year duration) to provide enough time to meet all kids’ biological, social-emotional and academic needs.

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? *

To support teacher retention, the administration needs to improve its communication with teachers and seek buy-in and feedback. (Something similar could be said about ASD’s relationship with its principals, as well.) In SPED, where burnout leads to very high turnover rates, proper staffing ratios and contractual implementation of teacher preparation time would aid in teacher retention. Additional time and support for professional development and collaboration would also improve retention. Recruitment of talented teachers is related, and the board needs to focus on increasing the number of highly qualified teachers of color. These teachers benefit all students, but have particular bearing on the academic performance, graduation rates and college attendance among students of color.

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?

ASD Board members need to venture beyond the boardroom and community councils into other community groups to truly get a pulse for community members’ concerns. I think that communication between ASD and Anchorage-area voters could also be increased if the board members were not elected at-large, and instead, were able to represent the people living within more defined geographic areas, much like the Assembly. I’m open to learning more about the possibility of changing this structure, as I do think it would make the tasks of representation and communication more manageable.

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

ASD offers many options, ranging from schools-within-a school, to language immersion programs, to optional, alternative and charter schools. In theory, these programs permit any child to attend a school of choice regardless of zip code, and offer differentiated learning at a structural level. However, there are significant barriers (related to transportation, food services, and/or available supports for ELL or SPED students) that may dissuade or prohibit every interested student from enrolling in a lottery-based program. I’m encouraged by the new Board Guardrail which instructs the superintendent to not leave any demographic underrepresented in ASD’s schools of choice, and I look forward to seeing the administration pave a smoother path for all students to explore ASD’s options.