Education

New Anchorage schools chief aims for better results

Deena Paramo has officially worked as Anchorage School District's new superintendent for about two weeks. She has visited each school, met with staff, looked at data and taken on a new top priority: improving academic growth in Anchorage.

Paramo said the Anchorage School Board gave her that priority, telling her, "We need academic achievement." The school district has not seen significant academic growth in three years, Paramo said in an interview last week. She said she wants that to change.

"It really has been flat over the past three years. So if we are working to change the learning behavior of kids and we haven't increased or changed anything in three years, then we have a problem," Paramo said. "We have to say, 'What are we doing that isn't meeting the needs?' "

Paramo spoke to an Alaska Dispatch News reporter last week at a sandwich shop near the Anchorage School District administration building, off East Northern Lights Boulevard. On the table, she had a book: "The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business," and a notebook, which she opened to reference her handwritten notes on district data.

She pointed to a page of notes about kindergarten and first-grade students. It showed that the percentage of students not meeting grade-level literacy requirements remained relatively stagnant over the past three years — about one in three students were performing below grade level.

"I want to say, 'Does that bother anyone?' " Paramo said. "Because that really bothers me."

Paramo, the former superintendent of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, has taken over the Anchorage superintendent job from Ed Graff, who oversaw those three years being questioned by Paramo. The Board voted not to renew Graff's three-year contract in the fall, refusing to give public details about why they let him go. Graff was selected this spring as the Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent. His Anchorage contract ended June 30.

Paramo's Anchorage contract started the next day, though she said she began moving into the new role through June. She said her initial dive into the Anchorage School District's data revealed that there has been little academic growth in scores on AIMSweb, a test the school district uses to screen students in math and reading. Paramo said African-American, Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students are falling behind their peers.

"We need to figure out how our schools are welcoming communities' families and figuring out how we can best support teachers to be able to do their jobs to make a difference for kids," Paramo said. "It's not a lack of trying. We've been working hard. We just need to identify the right work."

These troubling performance gaps don't just plague Anchorage, and Paramo said she didn't have specific solutions yet. She said staff had to look at each student as an individual not as, for example, a "third-grader." She said district leaders also had to look at where schools were failing — the data can provide clues — and talk about fixes for each shortfall. Some solutions may be simple; some may not, she said.

Before taking over the Anchorage School District, Paramo worked as the superintendent at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District for about five years. There, she said, staff noticed that not many Alaska Native students enrolled in the popular Mat-Su Career and Technical High School. (Only about 2 percent of the students were Alaska Native. Across the district, between 15 and 18 percent of students were Alaska Native, according to Paramo).

Paramo said staff talked to Alaska Native students at the high school. They asked them why they thought more Alaska Native students didn't attend.

"They said, 'Well you don't ask us right,' " Paramo said. The students said it would be better if they discussed their high school options in smaller groups. The staff heeded their request and now about 18 percent of the school's students are Alaska Native, Paramo said.

She cited another example from several years ago in the Mat-Su district. Paramo said staff had identified a dip in test scores when Alaska Native students entered middle school. The district worked with staff at the University of Alaska's Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program who created a program specifically for its students.

"After just two years we went from 42 kids in eighth grade making an A or B in algebra to 132," Paramo said.

She said it's critical that all students have access to schools' programs, and staff must also look at whether students are choosing those programs and why. Sometimes, she said, simple solutions can come from just talking.

Paramo said in the past few weeks she has been looking at academic data for Anchorage's Title I elementary schools — schools with high percentages of low-income students. She said she has noticed high performance at Creekside, Chinook and Muldoon elementary schools. She said she wants to know, "What are these principals doing to get the job done?"

An intense focus on academics is needed, according to Anchorage School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler.

Agosti-Gisler said Board members have decided they've spent too many years focusing on the budget and buildings as they tried to get a handle on a shrinking pool of state funds. The board is now refocusing on student growth and achievement, its "true mission," said Agosti-Gisler.

"It was just a matter of redefining our priorities," she said in an interview.

Agosti-Gisler said the district is developing an online "data dashboard" where the public can easily access school information. That academic data, she said, will help inform the district's decisions.

She also said the board wanted to give Paramo direction and a focus early so its expectations were clear.

"So right from the get-go there is momentum," she said.

Paramo said her ultimate goal is that each student graduates from the Anchorage School District prepared to "meet their wishes and dreams," whether that's college, the military, trade school or the workforce.

For Paramo's two daughters, that meant college. Paramo, 46, has a younger daughter who graduated from Wasilla High School this year and who will attend the University of Dallas this fall. Her older daughter attends UAA.

Paramo said last week that she was looking at moving into a condo in Anchorage's Spenard neighborhood to shrink her commute time from her current Big Lake home to her new job at district headquarters.

Aside from improving academic performance in Anchorage, Paramo said she plans to find what's working in the school district and invest more in those areas, even if it means cutting others. She would like more students to have access to "top-notch" high school programs headquartered at certain schools. She would also like to see students and teachers consistently have access to up-to-date technology.

"You can't just say, 'Oh, we can't do anything.' You have to stop doing other stuff and continue to invest in where you want to make the most growth," Paramo said. "That will be a challenge I think for the staff because the data has been the same for three years and if the data is the same, I bet our actions have been the same. So we're going to have to say, 'What are we going to do differently to help these kids?' But obviously, Anchorage, they already have the first phase of change, they have a different superintendent."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.

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