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Frustrated over curriculum, training and contract issues, teachers pack Anchorage School Board meeting

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 11, 2017
  • Published September 11, 2017

Roughly 100 Anchorage educators packed Monday’s School Board meeting. They spoke to the board about a variety of concerns including increasing class sizes, too little training and the absence of a contract. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Dispatch News)

Anchorage band teacher Philip Walters told the School Board Monday that the district is trying to do far too much with too little.

"I come before you tonight to ask you to stop, to take a breath," he said. "We have too little time, too little funding, too little available energy to try and continue to solve the troubles of Anchorage schools all at once."

Walters was one of roughly 100 educators who packed the Anchorage School Board meeting Monday evening. Most of them wore purple shirts — a sign of solidarity, according to Tom Klaameyer, president of the Anchorage Education Association teachers union.

"Our members are frustrated," he said in an interview before the 7 p.m. meeting. "We're trying to do our job for kids and the demands that have been placed on us are taking away from our time to teach."

About a dozen educators spoke in front of the seven-member School Board Monday evening. Their concerns ranged from increasing class sizes to the continued absence of a contract to too much testing to too little training for the district's new curriculum and programs.

Walters said teachers at Begich Middle School started this school year two days early to receive training on the new "Capturing Kids' Hearts" — billed as a program to help staff build relations and a positive school climate. At the same time, he said, staff also had to implement a new schedule "we've never tried before" and a student support system "we've never taught before and in some cases have yet to be trained in."

Lisa Sparrow, an elementary school teacher, said new English Language Arts curriculum required her first-grade students to take a weekly unit test and a weekly spelling test in addition to other mandatory district tests. The tests, she said, provided "minimal information" for instruction and were "excessive and developmentally inappropriate" for students.

About the curriculum's test taken by students at the start of the year, she said, "None of my 6-year-old students could read the passages nor any of the questions." The weekly spelling tests, she said, "have caused tears and stress for students."

Gruening Middle School teacher Laura Wrenn told the board that teachers in the Anchorage School District give "100 percent to their students every day," but "it doesn't feel as if the district administration is giving us 100 percent."

"We hear reports of people being told, 'If you don't like the direction we're going, you should leave,' " she said. "We have co-workers and colleagues across the district saying, 'This is the year I'm going to retire,' not because they're done teaching but because they don't feel that their expertise is valued."

Nancy Neil said she has taught in the district for 18 years and has "never seen the morale so low."

In addition to the concerns listed Monday evening, teachers still don't have a current contract, Klaameyer said.

"We've been bargaining for two years," he said.

The Anchorage Education Association's contract with the Anchorage School District expired at the end of June and the two groups have yet to reach another deal. Negotiations continue with discussions centering on issues including health care benefits, wage increases and planning time, Klaameyer said.

In the meantime, the union continues to operate under the prior contract, he said.

Klaameyer said the late contract agreement falls on top of numerous other stressors, including the elimination of 99 teaching positions between last school year and the current one, as well as the layoff notices handed to more than 200 teachers in May and a new grading system deployed by the district that, he said, had an "atrocious" rollout.

Then, he said, there's the beginning of lessons on sexual abuse and sexual assault awareness and prevention this year as part of legislation passed by the state Legislature in 2015. Teachers received little training on the new material, he said.

"We have too much that is distracting from our job," he told the board Monday. "We simply want to teach students. We need to time to teach."

Catherine Esary, school district spokeswoman, said in an interview before the meeting that elementary health teachers and principals of middle and high schools were trained on the delivery of the new lessons required under the 2015 legislation. Secondary teachers are receiving training from principals, "but also from materials provided," she said.

About both the new curriculum and new grading system Esary said, "It is a new process and anything new requires some learning and some time."

The School Board did not respond right away to each person who spoke Monday evening, in line with its public testimony policy.

Klaameyer said teachers have voiced concerns long before Monday and "they feel like they've been ignored."

"A lot of the teachers have said to me that they're at a breaking point," he said. "They've said this is the worst start of a school year in 20 years."

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