Anchorage School Board candidate Q&As: Do you have areas of concern about student achievement in the Anchorage School District? What are your specific suggestions for improvement?

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

SEAT B (1-year-term)

Mark Anthony Cox

The accessibility of Honors/AP classes for BIPOC and students in disadvantaged areas due to transportation and discouragement from staff/faculty to academically challenge students.

Judy Norton Eledge

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.

Kelly Lessens

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.

Marilyn Stewart

Yes. Summer school, restoring PTA meetings district-wide, an aggressive outreach campaign targeting parent involvement. Special emphasis on reading, math and writing.


Rachel Blakeslee

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.

Edgar Blatchford

My concern is addressing BIPOC issues. We must address the issue of fairness in the budget to ensure that the growing student enrollments of Asian and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Alaska Natives, Hispanics and the many others who call Anchorage their only home. The children whose parents come from elsewhere reflect the need to be respectful of the diversity of all. I believe that all of the employees of ASD are role models, so important to student achievement, that it is in our best interest to support programs that encourage residents to apply for the jobs needed to clearly reflect our commitment to respect all cultures, traditions. In the end we are all residents of Anchorage, our home.

Sami Graham

Student achievement is my number one concern with the ASD.

Pat Higgins

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.

Alisha Hilde*

Improving student achievement has been my priority while serving on the school board. The key to student success is recruiting and retaining highly skilled teachers and empowering parents to support their child’s education. We’re at an incredible flex point in education given the upheaval of the pandemic. Parents are directly engaged with their child’s learning, and teachers have created new methods of delivering instruction and connecting with families. Building on those successes, we could see dramatic improvements in student learning. At the school board level, these improvements come from focused monitoring of student progress and supporting a budget that prioritizes reading and math instruction and preparation for life after graduation – in college, career or vocational training.

Nial Sherwood Williams

Reopen all schools now.


Kim Paulson

During the 2018/2019 school year, over 50% of our students tested below proficient in English Language Arts and math testing scores. We need to find out what systems are in place that resulted in more than half of our students lacking the ability to read, write, or master math for their grade level. We need to focus on different learning styles and support our teachers in working with the different learning styles of students in their classrooms.

Marcus Sanders

We need to change Anchorage school system’s focus to improving the current math proficiency of 40.30% and English Language Arts proficiency of only 41.79% to the highest national level we can in the next two years. We need to return to proven successful English language Arts (reading) and math teaching methods.

Dora Wilson

Looking at student performance based on demographics, there is data showing lower scores for particular groups of students from the time they enter kindergarten that ultimately correlate with low graduation rates among the same identified groups. In areas of concern, efforts to measure and monitor student performance and needs must happen from the beginning of the year onward throughout the year, with adaptations made as needed based on short-term successes and failures. Acknowledging there is a problem is key, and performance measures need to be put in place and kept at the forefront of the conversation.


Carl Jacobs

Yes. Our district is transparent about shortcomings in this area, and the inability to completely or even partially address many areas of concern. Approximately one in four Alaska Native/American Indian youth eligible to graduate high school failed to do so last year. Children of color, those with disabilities and students classified as economically disadvantaged are typically more likely to fail a class or face disciplinary action within ASD. Addressing these concerns must involve a community-wide discussion, and increased engagement between our district and the community which does not occur at present. Addressing systemic issues such as equity in access to pre-K, charter schools, special and gifted programs must be priorities for the board moving forward.

Elisa Vakalis*

Our reading proficiency scores are low. That is one of the main components to our newly adopted goals and guardrails. In five years, we want to double the reading proficiency from 40% to 80%. It will take an aggressive approach by staff and a concerted effort by the community. The Life, College, and Career goal is rooted in community support that when a student leaves out district they are prepared for their life, no matter the direction. I support our community guided goals and guardrails.

* 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?