Anchorage

Anchorage School Board candidate Q&As: Achievement gaps persist in the Anchorage School District among economic, racial and ethnic groups of students. What should the district do to close them?

In advance of the April 6 Anchorage municipal election, the Anchorage Daily News asked candidates running for Anchorage School Board a series of issue questions. These include questions suggested by readers. Read all the mayor and school board candidates’ responses here.

Q: 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?

SEAT B (1-year-term)

Mark Anthony Cox

The ASD should provide to the students’ elementary assistance to include: mentorship, mental health support and transportation to students who qualify for gifted programs without the means otherwise.

Judy Norton Eledge

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.

Kelly Lessens

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!

Marilyn Stewart

I would like to work with the Anchorage School District, teachers and parents to make certain that the ASD, teachers, principals and others represent the diversity of our schools. Minorities are now the majority, therefore our schools, classrooms and curriculums should reflect this. The Anchorage School District places 97th as the largest school district in the U.S. regarding diverse students. Non-white students makeup roughly 58% of the Anchorage School District. I will work hard to ensure that the school system serves all our kids from across ALL ages, faiths and races.


SEAT E

Rachel Blakeslee

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.

Edgar Blatchford

I have been a professor since 1995. I see the results of a high school education in my classroom. I think I have learned a thing or two. The first is BIPOC teachers who reflect the diversity of the greater Anchorage community. One person who identifies with a minority group can be all the reason why a student is motivated to reach for the highest fruit on the highest tree. The ASB of the future should not be a board where the members all look the same. It does a disservice to the concept of role models that every academic institution in the country recognizes as the key to success. If the parents have failed in the system because they never had a fair chance at success, that doesn’t mean the ASD should also fail. I support every opportunity to expand the opportunities for people of color.

Sami Graham

We have one of the most diverse school districts in the nation and yet our teaching force does not reflect that. It is important to have an accredited teacher certification program at UAA so we can recruit Alaskan teachers from all ethnic groups.

Pat Higgins

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.

Alisha Hilde*

As chair of the school board governance committee, I work collaboratively on improving equity in our district as we strive to address disparities in educational outcomes. I expect results that show all student groups are succeeding academically and that students are fairly represented in our lottery/application-based programs. These aims are reflected in our school board’s adopted goals and guardrails to achieve over the next five years. I am working with educational leaders in other urban districts across the country to improve our board’s accountability in reaching these goals. Improvement will come with intentional, ongoing review of our district’s progress and strong, public accountability.

Nial Sherwood Williams

Teach all students equally. Stop telling them they are unequal. Set the bar high and you will be surprised by how many more will achieve excellence.


SEAT F

Kim Paulson

We need to research and figure out why there is a persistent achievement gap in our district. What has the district done to address this issue? More information is needed in order to truly answer the question. It is important not to place a stigma on students that they are unable to do well because of their life experiences. As I learn more on this issue I will continue to update my website.

Marcus Sanders

Have programs in the school that run all year round (utilizing distance learning). This would improve reading and math skills. Summer school and mentoring systems may be needed to help students to catch up and be at grade level.

Dora Wilson

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.


SEAT G

Carl Jacobs

As a parent to an incredibly diverse group of youth for the last ten years, I have seen the problem firsthand. Achievement gaps are rightfully receiving attention due in part to the ongoing pandemic, but these institutional challenges have gone unsolved for years. I’ve spent considerable time reaching out to parents asking questions as to how to improve outcomes for all students. Reoccurring themes include improved and more transparent communication, equity in distribution of resources and increased accountability and engagement by our school board. Discussing these problems is appropriate and necessary, but must be accompanied by meaningful action and follow-through.

Elisa Vakalis*

The best thing I can do as a board member is to keep the achievement gap at the front of the conversation. We are looking at our policies and procedures already, but the process to make systemic changes won’t happen overnight. The pandemic served to further shine a light on the inequities. The district has many wonderful partners in the community that are also focused on the gaps, and by working together we can make changes at a community level as well as an educational institution level.

* Incumbents


Read more Q&As with Anchorage School Board candidates:

Why are you running?

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

What’s your vision for education in Anchorage?

Rate the school district’s performance during the pandemic. What specifically would you have done differently?

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

If you could change one thing in the Anchorage School District, what would it be?

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

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

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

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?

Does Anchorage need better preschool options?

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

Achievement gaps persist in the Anchorage School District among economic, racial and ethnic groups of students. What should the district do to close them?

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

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?

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?

What other important issue would you like to discuss?

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