New Anchorage schools superintendent wins support with student data and an open door

Deena Bishop and her new husband, Bill, went on a 5-mile run on a Sunday in April, and two days later he found out he had late-stage throat cancer.

It was a stunning turn of events for Bishop, 47, who was in her first year in the demanding job of superintendent of Anchorage schools. Suddenly her personal life was in crisis.

"It turned our life around real quick," Bishop said during an interview in late June, one day after her husband completed seven weeks of treatment.

"Early signs show the cancer is gone, so we're really happy," Bishop said. "He's going to be fine. He's going to be good."

Whether it's in personal or public life, she boiled it down to this: "You always get something thrown at you, and then you figure it out."

Over the past year, Bishop has had to figure out a lot. She took over the helm of the state's largest school district, moved from Big Lake to downtown Anchorage, sent her youngest daughter to college, got married, planned a honeymoon and then canceled it when her seemingly healthy husband received the unexpected diagnosis.

Looking back, Bishop said, there's a lot she's proud of and there's a lot she still hopes to do.


"Each day being an administrator is exciting," she said. "One never knows what new challenge there is in education. … You never 'arrive,' I say."

As the head of the Anchorage School District, Bishop oversees more than 90 schools and more than 47,000 students. It's a district more than double the size of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, where she previously worked as the superintendent — and before that, as a principal and teacher. Compared to Mat-Su, Bishop said, the Anchorage district has "a lot more layers." The Anchorage School District is famously diverse and by enrollment ranks in the top 100 nationwide.

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"It was initially more difficult to turn the ship a little bit," Bishop said. "Breaking through the bureaucracy to focus on kids was probably the most difficult because it's just more. It's 6,000 employees here; we're 2,400 in Mat-Su."

During her first year leading Anchorage schools, Bishop said, her greatest accomplishment has been improving communication between administrative departments that have operated in "silos" in the past. That included aligning goals, expectations and standards, and having them work together to solve problems.

"When you do that, the kids are first," she said. "But when you run it department by department, sometimes we don't always think about kids' outcomes."

Bishop said that's her overarching goal: improving students' academic outcomes.

She said she has made staff changes and is using data to hold employees accountable. She also wants to use data to drive conversations about what's not working in schools.

In November, the district unveiled its online data dashboard, a trove of information on suspensions, attendance, grades and more. It's updated regularly, and it's a way to hold the district accountable to the public, she said.

"We're just having, I think, many more honest conversations," Bishop said. "I think Anchorage didn't have, internally at least, honest conversations about what is working and what isn't. We kind of just kept doing what we always did."

Next school year, Bishop said, supervisors will receive a computer-generated report on data pertinent to their jobs. For instance, a principal would get a report on school attendance that would highlight students prone to absenteeism so counselors could start making phone calls. It could also be a report showing which teachers updated students' grades electronically. The School Board wants grades updated every week, as often as possible, Bishop said.

"We're writing those scripts and those codes to better help teachers and principals do the work. It's just using the system smarter," she said.

The district isn't trying to "point fingers" at teachers who aren't updating data, she said, but it wants to know whether policy is being carried out.

"It's just that if something is expected, how do we know it's being done?"

In an interview last week, Anchorage School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler said Bishop exceeded expectations in her first year. She praised Bishop's transparent, energetic and data-driven work. She also described Bishop as a "strong communicator."

"People are truly on the same page," Agosti-Gisler said. "There are no information absences or people not being involved."

Agosti-Gisler said the School Board's top goals include improving academic achievement and closing "achievement gaps" that persist between certain student groups.


For instance, during the past school year, about 20 percent of white students got at least one F grade in a core subject, compared to about 44 percent of Alaska Native students and about 43 percent of Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian students. The numbers were similar the year before, except a slightly larger percentage of Alaska Native students got a failing grade, at 49 percent, according to school district data.

"We don't have the luxury of studying the problem anymore. We need solutions," Agosti-Gisler said.

Bishop, Agosti-Gisler said, "talks often about this sense of urgency that she has. She is very quick to say that people have been working very, very hard in the ASD for many years, but in some cases we've been doing the wrong work."

Agosti-Gisler said she was "anxiously awaiting" the scores from this spring's statewide standardized test to see if there has been improvement. She also expects the administration in August to present data on other district tests, as well as on attendance and graduation rates.

Pat Higgins, who served on the School Board from 2008 until this year, was on the board last year when it decided to hire Bishop to replace Ed Graff.

"In my nine years, our best vote ever was voting for Deena," Higgins said.

Higgins said that during the first School Board meeting with Bishop as superintendent, she unveiled more academic data than he had ever seen, more than he "ever knew existed." He said he expects "tremendous change" under Bishop, something the district has not seen since the days of Carol Comeau, who retired as superintendent in 2012.

"Our improvement under Carol was significant. Jim Browder wasn't here long enough. Then we went three years with Ed and we had nothing that you can point to," Higgins said.


But he said it's too soon to say whether Bishop's work is changing student outcomes. He said he expects "little inklings of increase" next school year and "a lot of change" in the next three to five years.

"It's impossible to walk in in one year and change what's going on in classrooms when you start July 1," he said.

Brinna Wojtalewicz, president of the Anchorage Education Association — the teachers union — said it was apparent that Bishop was working for "what's best for students." She also said the superintendent had an "open-door policy" when it came to communicating, but declined to comment further because of ongoing contract negotiations between the district and union.

"We don't always agree, but I really do appreciate the time she takes to listen," Wojtalewicz said.

Bishop said she's looking forward to many more years at the Anchorage School District. Last month, the School Board voted to extend her contract, securing her as the superintendent until at least July 2020.

Next school year, Bishop said, her goals include improving reading in elementary school and math in middle and high school. In the long term, her plans include expanding online classes, requiring high school students to take at least one course electronically.

"I think we're really doing some fantastic things," she said. "I'm excited to have teachers feel very confident in their art and science of teaching and kids being successful, and if those things keep on, I'm here for the long haul."

Tegan Hanlon

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