The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for Anchorage Assembly to answer a series of issue questions. Read all of them here.
Kelly Lessens | School Board Seat: B | Age: 41 | Occupation: Anchorage School Board member | kelly4anchoragekids.com
What is a short summary of your background?
I’m a mom, classroom volunteer, and education advocate who was elected to Seat B on the Anchorage School Board in April 2021. Before moving to Alaska, I earned a B.A. from Stanford and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. I ran for the School Board in 2021 on the basis of my prior nonpartisan advocacy to improve local student outcomes. I currently serve as board treasurer, chair of the finance committee, and a member of the communications committee. I’m also a member of UA’s Early Childhood Advisory Board. I believe deeply in collaborative, evidence-based decision making that is centered on doing what’s best for all of our students.
Why are you running?
For years, my daughter came home from school saying “Mom, I didn’t have time to eat!” So I dug into the research, mobilized other parents, and got ASD to implement evidence-based lunch and recess times that improved students’ hunger, happiness and classroom behaviors. From the very beginning, I got involved for my kids, and for all Anchorage kids. I’m running for reelection to continue to improve student outcomes and build a stronger community. I’m proud of the work I’ve done since being elected last May, especially when it’s come to keeping our schools open and focused on student needs. I have served on the board for ten months, and there’s more I want to get done. We need to address the district’s pending fiscal cliff, promote teacher retention and recruitment in the face of national shortages, and engage families because students do best when parents are involved. Most importantly, I will work collaboratively to restore trust within ASD and between ASD and the community.
What makes you qualified to serve on the Anchorage School Board?
I am the only candidate for Seat B who is a parent of children currently enrolled in ASD and who worked to improve local student outcomes long before running for the school board. I have kept the board focused on what’s best for Anchorage students. I have provided strong fiscal oversight – including finding savings that we’ve reappropriated to student learning. I’m proud to have earned endorsements from local educators, who are the bedrock of what makes our schools succeed. Over the past 10 months on the board, I have supported student learning by focusing on reading and math proficiency as well as “career, college and life readiness.” We need to hold ASD accountable for growth in these areas. I’ve advocated for a safe commitment to in-person school throughout this year, for increased student mental health supports, for small class sizes, for access to additional preschool and CTE opportunities, for teacher retention, for adequate funding, and more.
What’s your vision for public education in Anchorage?
We need to build an effective, efficient, 21st century system that provides all students with access to core bodies of knowledge and skills that will allow them to collaborate, innovate and apply ideas throughout their lives. We must also equip them with the tools to be informed civic participants, to empathize with others, to demonstrate critical thinking, and to work to build a society in which everyone truly belongs. These goals depend on leaders who will place children’s developmental needs at the center of our education system, who will advocate for curricular excellence, and who will call for the resources required to get the job done.
What’s the single most important issue facing the Anchorage School District? How would you address it if elected?
We need to restore trust in public education, but we cannot do that if we fail to address ASD’s looming fiscal cliff. State funding does not keep up with inflation. That means school funding is effectively cut every year. This school year, instead of increasing classroom sizes, ASD is using about $25 million in federal relief funds to offset the effective decrease. During the 2022-2023 school year, ASD will use $56.5 million in temporary relief funds just to maintain its status quo metrics. If the district did not have those temporary funds, the ASD’s ratio of 30 high schoolers per one teacher would balloon to 40 high schoolers per teacher. We need to keep identifying efficiencies within our budget — and I have. But if there is no movement from Juneau (and soon) to adjust the school funding formula, ASD will have a $67 million shortfall for the 2024-2025 school year. Anchorage needs board members that understand the magnitude of the problem and who will go to bat for Anchorage schools.
If I could change one thing in the Anchorage School District, it would be _____. Explain.
Special education. Particularly the recruitment and retention of SPED teachers. When I’ve spoken to families of students with special needs, many are overwhelmed with what they perceive as ongoing needs to advocate for their student(s). They have shared that they would benefit from expanded opportunities for liaisons and support groups, as well as additional blended preschool options. These things all require sizable numbers of dedicated, trained experts. SPED teachers also have concrete needs. SPED has the highest rate of vacancies and turnover in ASD, as many SPED teachers often leave the field entirely after only three to five years due to burnout. Thirty five percent of ASD’s current vacancies are in SPED. We need to address this challenge through enhanced commitments to recruitment, as well as to more mentorship opportunities, additional prep time to adequately design interventions, consistent, planned and coordinated cycles of prof. development, and up-to-date, research-based curricular materials.
Do you have areas of concern about student achievement in the Anchorage School District? What are your specific suggestions for improvement?
We know that the shift to online learning exacerbated gaps in student achievement, changed students’ study habits, and challenged their mental health. Teachers are dealing with students who are months — if not years — behind their peers, both academically and behaviorally. Shortfalls in students’ reading proficiency are most evident in our youngest learners and among students who are economically disadvantaged, who are still learning English, or who qualify for special education. To make improvements, the district needs to continue to use teacher input and data to strategically direct resources to support at risk student groups while also meeting the ongoing needs of students who have stayed on track. Other parts of the solution include: summer schools, in-person tutoring options, reading instruction specialists, and capping K-3 classrooms under 15 students. We need to recruit and retain teachers. None of this is possible without addressing the state-level funding or benefit issues.
Do you have ideas for how ASD can improve its career and technical education curriculum?
CTE has amazing assets, ranging from horticulture and culinary opportunities to welding, biomedical, aviation, business and more! But it would be wonderful to expose students at all schools to a variety of career and technical options early. This might look like elementary-school introductions to community leaders or middle school field trips to training facilities, King Tech, and/or access to mentorship programs. Students at all eight comprehensive high schools and at King Tech have options to enroll in CTE pathways, and students also have opportunities to receive college credits for certain CTE courses while they’re in ASD. They can pursue internships, join Career Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs), and can join a two year “Business Academy” (while receiving college credit). I’m also excited about the district’s new Student Community Workforce Agreement, which should encourage the entry of more students into high-paying, skilled trades.
Are you satisfied with current preschool options? Explain.
No, but I recognize that they are a work in progress. ASD (and Anchorage as a whole) continues to need additional preschool options to increase options for all families and improve kindergarten readiness district-wide. Only 18% of our kindergarteners in the 2019-2020 year entered 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.
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?
The recently settled AEA contract should be a first step toward improved teacher retention. Moving forward, the board and administration will need to continue to improve communication and seek buy-in and feedback. However, one of the key reasons that ASD — like the others across Alaska — struggles to retain and recruit educators is because too many current, new, and would-be teachers lack access to a defined benefit system. Surveys of teachers and administrators identify retirement benefits as the single MOST important issue for improving teacher retention and recruitment. A competitive, state-level focus on teacher recruitment and retention is a must if our state has any meaningful intention to improve student outcomes. The board also needs to focus on increasing the number of teachers of color, who have strong bearing on the academic performance, graduation rates and college attendance among students of color. Our workforce should look like our community.
Rate how the Anchorage School District has handled the pandemic, and why? What would you have done differently, if anything?
Many students are struggling due to pandemic-related challenges, both academically and behaviorally, but voters need to elect board members who are laser-focused on addressing the challenges we know are here now. When I joined the Board in May 2021, I understood that parents wanted consistency and in-person learning more than pretty much anything else, both for their students and for themselves. I am proud that ASD offered that consistency this year; unlike schools and entire districts in other parts of the country, ASD did not revert to online learning. But I don’t want to dismiss the extraordinary challenges this year has presented. Our teachers — and the parents who have stepped in as substitute teachers — are absolute heroes.
Many students are struggling due to pandemic-related challenges, both academically and behaviorally. What are some strategies the school district should prioritize to help students recover from that period?
Academically, ASD should continue to prioritize investments in summer school and small group tutoring, like reading interventionists. I would have liked to have seen class sizes capped at 15 students for 2nd and 3rd graders in the 2022-2023 school year, at minimum, especially at the schools that are being assessed as “below benchmark” in reading proficiency, so as to allow teachers to have adequate time to meet students’ needs and better work towards the accelerated growth that we hope to see. ASD’s understanding of adequate classroom staffing sizes (15 for K-3) has never been implemented in our schools. Holistically, we should probably rethink…everything. The board’s commitment to mental health supports is important, but we also need to think about school start times, additional recess, the role of counselors, additional preschool options to build long-term capacity, and long-term investments in healthy buildings, i.e. through ventilation improvements.
What are your thoughts on how the topic of racism and its history in the United States should be taught in public schools?
ASD should give all students age-appropriate opportunities to understand our country’s struggles to form a more perfect union, in order to prepare graduates for a future of civic participation. Students need access to curricular materials and opportunities that develop core bodies of knowledge, help them understand change over time, learn to account for multiple perspectives, develop critical thinking skills, and cultivate a sense of pride or patriotism in how Individuals and groups have struggled for better laws and practices. I would like to see improvements to our state history and civics standards. Other states take more systematic approaches to building students’ knowledge of American history, traditions and institutions than Alaska. These states also emphasize skills essential to informed citizenship, champion key civic dispositions, use elementary and middle schools effectively (and require a year of U.S. history and a semester of civics in high school,) and organize standards well.
What other important issue would you like to discuss?
ASD offers many options for students to choose among, 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. I was delighted to support the recharter of three of those schools this year and the expansion of a fourth. However, significant barriers (related to overall knowledge about, transportation to/from, and access to district-provided food services and/or available supports for ELL or SPED students) may dissuade or prohibit every interested student from enrolling in a lottery-based program. I’m encouraged by the 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.