Anchorage School Board candidate Q&A: Rachel Blakeslee (Seat E)

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

RACHEL BLAKESLEE | Occupation: Manager of national corporate partnerships, Teach For America | Age: 31 |

1. Why are you running?

As a mom, former teacher, and lifelong advocate for kids, I know that education is the greatest tool we can give our children. I fundamentally believe that all students — regardless of their background or zip code — deserve to have access to a high-quality education. Unfortunately, our public education system is not currently set up to serve all kids fully or equally. Long before the onset of COVID-19, more than 50% of ASD students were scoring below or far below proficient in key assessment areas year after year. With the added challenges of this virus, students are only falling further behind and longstanding opportunity gaps are widening. I am running for school board because I believe in the potential of all kids and I believe we can do better at helping them realize it.

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

As a mom and candidate who has had direct classroom experience, I bring a relevant perspective and understanding of the challenges that teachers and parents face because I’ve literally walked in their shoes. I began my career in education over ten years ago as a bilingual teacher in a Title I school. My experiences in the classroom catalyzed my desire to fight for better outcomes for all kids. I also have a dual background in environmental justice and education that stems from my unwavering commitment to ensure every child has the chance to grow and develop in a healthy, supportive learning environment. I believe my interdisciplinary background will allow me to serve the diverse needs of our diverse student population and approach decisions through a holistic, student-centered lens.

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

My vision is to ensure all ASD students have access to a high-quality education. This includes equitably distributing resources to get students back on track and close pervasive opportunity gaps, while offering more 21st century learning opportunities like digital and financial literacy. It also involves growing and retaining a diverse teacher workforce, as research shows teacher quality and representation are important determinants of student outcomes. I want to foster inclusive, nurturing learning environments through expanded social emotional and mental health supports, more fresh air time for kids and culturally relevant instruction. Finally, I’d like to improve ASD’s accessibility and accountability to the community through more two-way communication systems.

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 think the district’s response to the pandemic was slow and uncoordinated. There was so much time spent deliberating about how to get students back to school as it once existed, versus jumping quickly into action to restructure the approach to education so it served the needs of all kids in a new reality. I would have acted with more urgency to ensure ASD virtual and remote learning options were equitable, accessible, and offered high-quality instructional opportunities for kids no matter which option parents chose. I also would have focused on ensuring teachers and families were trained properly and thoroughly on how to navigate these new remote systems, and ensured that support was ongoing. I would have ensured that our students and teachers felt safe and heard, and started updating in-person learning spaces early on so that they were ready to accommodate students in accordance with COVID-19 safety protocols once in-person learning began again.

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

Right now, I think we have got to focus first and foremost on the massive loss of learning that has happened as a result of this pandemic. We need to start by providing increased tailored supports to catch kids up to where they need to be. This includes exploring new opportunities for expanded learning learning time (e.g., extended school-days/school year, structured after-school programs, weekend school, summer school, high-intensity, small group tutoring, etc.). We should start by targeting students who are at the highest risk for long-term learning loss. Additionally, we should balance the dual needs of meeting students where they are while continuing to expose them to grade-level content through scaffolded supports that keep high expectations for and a high belief in all kids.

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

In addition to focusing on my key priorities and all the topics covered here, I’d love to see more diversity in our leadership. I acknowledge that I have immense privilege that allows me to be able to run for a school board seat and advocate for something that I care so deeply about. But I also know that there are many experienced, talented and diverse voices out there that deserve to be elevated and represent our incredibly diverse community. I’d love to see real changes in our systems that make it possible for those voices to come to the surface and be heard through all forms of leadership, both formal and informal. I believe that true diversity of thought, fresh ideas and representation are the best ways to affect meaningful, positive change and the best path forward for our district.

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

I am deeply concerned. COVID-19 disruptions have caused students to fall further behind than they already were, and have exacerbated educational opportunity gaps that disproportionately impact our students along lines of race and class. We cannot approach the issue of student achievement in a vacuum. If we focus solely on boosting assessment scores through an age-old approach of teaching kids how to test, we will continue to fail them. We need a comprehensive approach to education that includes social-emotional resilience and project-based learning to increase students’ problem solving and relationship skills, culturally relevant instruction so students can see themselves in the content they’re learning, and that affords teachers the capacity, flexibility and resources they need.

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

I admire the budget that ASD was able to create amid so many financial challenges, and I largely align with the associated guardrails informed by community input. However, I remain skeptical at how ASD will be able to uphold its commitment to attract new, diverse talent while noting we’re at risk of cutting 750+ teaching jobs in the next few years without additional revenue sources. Additionally, I was struck by the fact that the budget for superintendent expenditures increased by $1M, despite the huge deficits we’re facing. If we’re asking our teachers and students to do more with less as a result of the pandemic and longstanding budget issues, I think it’s only fair we ask the same of our leadership’s operating needs.

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

I’d advocate for more curriculum that expands relevant and 21st century skills. We are living in a digital age where technological proficiency is critical for students to succeed in today’s economy. I’d push for an increased focus on digital literacy as it is not only essential for remote education, but has long been essential to all learning (e.g., to complete homework, access information, learn basic research skills, etc.) I’d also push for financial literacy to become a core component of our students’ education, as we have a responsibility to equip them with the tools to build the futures they want for themselves. Finally, I’d push for more project-based learning in all subjects, as research proves its effectiveness on students’ confidence, engagement and achievement.

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 would like to see continued distance learning options available. I believe that kids benefit the most from in-person learning. However, as we are still navigating so many uncertainties with this pandemic, I think it’s important to offer flexible instructional and learning choices that don’t leave parents and teachers fearful of the outcomes. For some, virtual learning is unsustainable. For others, in-person learning isn’t yet safe or feasible. And for an entirely different subset of students, virtual learning has allowed them to thrive in new ways. While every member of our community has struggled and sacrificed as a result of this virus, not all of those experiences have been the same. I think offering a variety of choices is essential to truly and equitably meet the needs of all kids

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

As a former pre-K teacher, I can attest to the power that early learning opportunities have on students’ long-term success. I am a huge advocate for expanding pre-K options in Anchorage. Pre-K lays the groundwork for a child’s academic trajectory through early exposure to literacy, problem solving, and social skills. It helps prevent opportunity gaps by providing every child with access to resources that many children don’t inherently receive at home. When I taught pre-K, my students arrived unable to recognize what a letter was, and left knowing all of their sounds, how to write their names and some even starting to read. Imagine how much more difficult it would have been for them if they’d missed that year of learning before entering kindergarten. Preschool makes all the difference.

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

ASD should expand options for blended career and technical education, affording students the option to prepare for a job and postsecondary education, rather than choosing between the two. Strong blended models like this prepare students for admission to college while simultaneously equipping them with industry skills and certifications for specific technical careers. ASD should expand apprenticeship programs that also give students the opportunity to earn college credits, industry certifications and credentials. We should also expose students to more mentors and instructors that represent their identities so students can see themselves in those roles, inspire them to explore those sectors and thus broaden the gender and racial diversity of technical 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?

I’d advocate for an equitable distribution of resources and learning opportunities to start closing opportunity gaps and ensure that our most underserved student populations receive the resources they deserve. This includes allocating more resources toward our students with the highest needs. It also means improving equity in access to specialized programs like charter schools and gifted education by fighting for school bus transportation to charter schools, examining who and how we evaluate which students receive admittance to specialized programs (processes that perpetuate biases and create additional barriers for our most marginalized kids), and addressing inequities that require students have inherent resources already at their disposal in order to compete.

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

Right now, class sizes in ASD range across grade levels and schools. Without a class size cap, some classes have grown to unmanageable levels. Research shows that larger class sizes slow and negatively impact academic gains. I would advocate for caps to class sizes to ensure that teachers are able to provide the differentiated instruction we know kids need, and which evidence indicates could actually help improve proficiency in core subjects like reading, which we know is a dire issue right now.

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

Widespread public health research indicates that later start times, especially for adolescents, positively impacts their overall health and academic performance. While this has been a widely debated issue among the ASD community in recent years, I would be open to re-exploring new start and release times that better serve the overall needs of our students. I do think that having later start times would necessitate having before-school drop-off options for families that do not have flexibility in making adjustments to their schedules.

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?

Nationwide, our public education system is struggling to attract and retain good teachers, a crisis from which Anchorage is not immune. High teacher turnover deeply and negatively impacts our kids. In order to attract and retain high-quality, diverse teachers in Anchorage, we need to do a better job at gathering concrete data that indicates why they leave in the first place. We know some big issues already: teacher compensation, lack of a robust and sustainable retirement plan, ineffective teacher evaluation systems and lack of high-quality teacher PD. Still we need to do a better job at not just surveying teachers’ satisfaction as a formality, but actually responding to their input, and showing them what concrete change results from the feedback they take the time to provide.

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?

One of my priorities is to improve the accessibility, transparency and accountability of ASD leadership. We need more two-way communication systems between the school board and the community. The community can provide written or oral public testimony on key issues for example, but these mechanisms lack a critical feedback loop that fosters real dialogue. Listening to concerns is not the same as responding to or acting on them. Also, while testimony goes on the record, sorting through those records to stay informed is a time consuming task that isn’t practical or even feasible for all parents. I’d push to create more informal, transparent and accessible platforms for engagement where the community can ask questions at any time, see what others have asked, as well as district responses.

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

The school board makes short- and long-term policy decisions that directly impact families with kids in school now, families that will attend ASD schools in the future and the overall prosperity of our community There are a lot of candidates on the ballot, and that can make the process of sifting through all of them feel daunting. However, given the stakes, I strongly encourage Anchorage voters to research a little about each candidate, learn more about their priorities and make informed decisions that will serve the best interests of our students.