Anchorage School Board candidate Q&A: Pat Higgins (Seat E)

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

PAT HIGGINS | Occupation: Human resources consultant/State of Alaska | Age: 68 |

1. Why are you running?

I am disappointed with the current school board and I am confident I can make a real difference. The school board is taking directions from the superintendent and not representing the public. Academic scores declined in 2019 before the pandemic. The board should give voice to what the community wants and focus on student success, provide operational guidance and ensure accountability for the district. I served on the school board from 2008 to 2017 and we changed outcomes for students. The board expanded CTE, replaced low-performance Everyday Math, administration costs were cut nine straight years. Graduation rates had increased from the low 60 to above 80%, and dropout rates were cut almost in half. The board listened to the public and led the district.

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

As a former school board member, I know ASD operations and understand the proper role of the board. The board needs to listen to staff, students and parents to make the best decision for student success. The board needs to provide direction to the district. And the board needs to hold the district accountable. The current board has delegated these responsibilities to the superintendent. I understand the expectations of the National School Board Association. As the prior chair of the school board audit committee, I understand the importance of holding the district accountable. I am the only candidate that understands how prior boards have contributed successfully to the success of students.

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

My vision is for ASD to be recognized as a high-performance school district. Teachers, administrators and the school board members work together. ASD established and achieved higher academic goals for all students that eliminated the academic achievement gap. Curriculum that helps all students advance a full academic year every year. Differentiated instruction will allow students to advance quicker and help other students catch up. ASD provides support to families with preschool children to prepare for kindergarten through an effective outreach program. ASD Career Technology Education is being expanded. The public is kept informed and participates in decisions in their school and by the school board.

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 rate the decision to close classroom instruction last spring positively. It put the safety of students and staff as its highest priority. I believe the connection to parents and students is rated poor, resulting in the loss of thousands of students that were not contacted. While teachers should be rated high for their commitment to helping all students, I believe the tools provided by the administration should be rated lower. ASD should have focused on the opportunity to select effective online instructional material that would have improved outcomes at home and when students return to the classroom. I believe ASD should have developed a comprehensive plan on providing more help to some students who need more assistance when schools were closed, and should have had a comprehensive plan on opening schools, such as providing lunches to all students.

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

Declining academic results. ASD needs to establish high goals that addresses the academic achievement gap and ensures all students advance academically a full year, every year. While the pandemic is a contributing factor today, academic results were dropping prior to the pandemic. In 2019, there was a significant decline following some curriculum changes. Staff, students and parents have raised concerns regarding curriculum, especially the new reading program. To address the decline of academic results, the school board needs to reestablish the Board Audit Committee. This Committee has access to experts in large school districts to conduct a thorough review of curriculum at very little cost.

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 the role of the school board. The current school board is delegating its authority to the superintendent. The current school board did not participate in new curriculum decisions and even believe it is inappropriate to make changes to the superintendent’s proposed budget. The superintendent and board have lost the trust of staff. A recent survey of over 2000 teachers found 72% had little or no trust in the superintendent. Half had little or no trust in the board. As a former board member, I want to help the board understand and meet the expectation of the NSBA: be the voice of the public, provide direction to the district or hold the district accountable.

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

Academic scores have declined in recent years and declined significantly in 2019 before the pandemic. And the academic achievement gap has not improved. The board needs to establish higher goals. A comprehensive plan needs to be developed with input from staff and administration. The board should reestablish an audit committee and use experts from other large school districts to evaluate the current curriculum and develop recommendations. ASD needs to explore options that have been successful in other school districts. Some school districts have outreach programs to help parents provide preschool activities for their children. It is unacceptable that 40% of children entering kindergarten are not ready for kindergarten.

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

My overall view of the ASD budget is that the state is underfunding public education. Based on the Picus Odden study with a focus on classroom size and administration cost, ASD is underfunded by over $120 million. Our class sizes are much higher that the majority of Lower 48 school districts. I am concerned that administration cost is increasing. This is an area that should be of concern to the board. When I was on the board from 2008 to 2017, we cut administration cost every year. The budget has a deficit between $25 million and $30 million this year, due to less students and costs associated with the pandemic. The board is hoping federal funds will cover this deficit, but that is uncertain at this time. I believe the board and administration need to have a better contingency plan.

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

I have no specific curriculum changes because I believe we need a professional audit of the current curriculum programs before deciding on changes. I am concerned about two issues. First, that recent changes to the reading program may be contributing to a drop in academic scores. Staff, students and parents have raised this concern. Second, I want to ensure curriculum that will help all students advance at least a full year academically every year. There are programs that will help achieve this goal and ASD needs to adopt them

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 believe expansion of computerized instruction that may be used at home or in the classroom needs to be explored. One online program already used in some classrooms for over 10 years allows different students to read the same story at different grade levels. Third graders who are reading at first and fifth grade levels are provided the same story at first and fifth grade reading levels in the same third grade class. This program assesses the students’ advancement and recommends to the teacher when their reading level should be increased to a higher level. This approach may be used for a wide variety of subjects so students can advance more appropriately. We have a challenging situation with the pandemic, but we need to identify opportunities too.

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

ASD needs to improve preschool options. While ASD cannot expect to receive the additional funding from the state to expand preschool classes within schools, there are inexpensive options. ASD needs to explore options used by other districts. One program established an outreach program to help parents provide preschool activities and had a lending program for preschool material. There are very inexpensive preschool programs subsidized by corporations that could be used in Anchorage with support by local businesses. ASD needs to consider low-cost programs that will help preschool children prepare for kindergarten.

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

CTE needs to be expanded in all schools. In 2010 I recommended, and the full board approved, expansion of CTE in all schools. Prior to that action, the district was only focused on developing a second King Career Center that could only be used by a limited number of students during the school day. I would like to see ASD partner with other community members to expand CTE opportunities. The CTE facility at West High School was developed with the goal of helping students at West, teachers of CTE classes in other schools and students who already graduated with classes at night and weekends. This plan encouraged other public and private funding that benefited ASD students and the business community.

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?

ASD needs to work closer with all communities to identify opportunities to address the academic achievement gap. One option I will support is to reestablish the Minority Educational Concerns Advisory Committee (MECAC) with the chair providing a report to the school board every month. The lack of preschool is a major factor, with 40% of students entering kindergarten not prepared for kindergarten. I will support options to help parents prepare their children for school. I believe ASD needs to do more to help all students to feel welcomed and supported. All students can learn and I will remain committed to helping achieve that goal.

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

No. The majority of Lower 48 states have adopted maximum class sizes that limits K to third grade at one teacher to 15 students and fourth through twelfth grade at one teacher to 25 students. Florida established a ratio of one to 18 for all grades. ASD had a study conducted by Picus Odden to determine adequate funding. The methodology was accepted in Lower 48 court cases when determining adequate funding requirements of state governments. ASD will require over $120 million more to be adequately funded using this study’s conclusions. It would require hiring hundreds of teachers. ASD needs to ensure all unnecessary expenditures outside the classroom not directly related to student outcomes are kept at a minimum.

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

No, studies show that starting the school day later increases learning. This is especially true for older students. However, it is difficult to change the schedule for high school students for a number of family and community reasons. While this is difficult, it should be a goal and options explored.

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?

No, more than half of all teachers hired out of colleges from the Lower 48 leave within the first five years. University of Alaska students have a better retention rate ,but not outstanding. Some steps that would improve retention, including more competitive wages and a return to a defined-benefit retirement system, are not options ASD has the authority or financial resources to implement. It also can’t reduce class size without additional resources. One step it can do to improve teacher retention is to improve their relationship with the board and superintendent. The board needs to listen to concerns of teachers and, when in the best interest of students, agree to change.

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 believe in transparency and am disappointed that it is not a higher priority to ASD. I believe there needs to be a regular report to the public that clearly reports ASD successes and failures. Academic scores need to be clearly reported and not buried in a pile of numbers. A major concern to me is the response of the superintendent and board to staff concerns. There is no clearly understood process for investigating and resolving staff safety and compliance concerns within the district, and the board is not providing direction to resolve this serious issue.

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

The public should be proud of the job that ASD staff do every day for students. I find it interesting that surveys of parents rate teachers very high, schools lower and public education in general much lower. There are serious issues to be addressed with ASD and the board is responsible for addressing all of those issues, but to all the staff who are dedicated to helping students, my sincere appreciation.