Students across the Anchorage School District arrived at schools early Thursday morning toting lunchboxes, and some nerves, on a sunny first day of class.
At Trailside Elementary in South Anchorage, first grade teacher Deanna Fossler waited outside for her students to arrive, greeting parents and returning students with a wide smile.
It was her 27th year of teaching, but she said she still wasn’t immune to the butterflies she knew some of her students were probably feeling too.
“It’s just because it’s new,” she said. “I think that makes me nervous, and I think for them, too. And then once the first day is over, for them it’s like, ‘OK, she’s not mean. We’re going to have fun. We get two snacks, and these cool chairs to sit on.’ ”
Nearby, principal Heather Jones greeted students wearing a bright vest and a colorful lanyard, full of excitement for the year ahead. The first day of school is always her favorite, she said. It’s an exciting time for both kids and teachers.
“Welcome back! Are you ready?” she asked two older students walking by. “No!” one responded, grinning.
Thursday marked a fresh start for students and staff. But the district has been grappling with a range of issues since last year, including teacher and support staff vacancies, implementing a change to Monday start times, the closure of a neighborhood elementary school and more.
Here’s where things stand heading into the new school year.
Late Monday start times
Beginning this year, elementary and middle schools are starting an hour later on Mondays to allow for professional development time for teachers.
The shift was approved at the end of the last school year by the Anchorage School Board. High schools were already starting later on Mondays; now, the later start time will apply to all schools. Classes will still end at the usual time.
Parents will still be able to drop off their children at the usual time on Mondays at school, where staff will watch them for that hour, district superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said in an interview Thursday. School buses, however, will still run an hour late, he said. Free breakfasts will still be available on Mondays, too.
Some parents and families last year expressed concern about the impact the shift could have on families who would need to find morning child care for their children once a week at a time when options in Anchorage are expensive and limited.
Bryantt said he received positive feedback from parents when the district told families that they could still drop off their kids at the usual time. He also said that a regular, dedicated hour of professional development time was something that he had valued when he was a teacher.
The change isn’t without precedent: In neighboring Mat-Su, later Monday start times were implemented last school year.
Staffing vacancies and a looming budget deficit
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Anchorage School District has seen an exodus of teachers and support staff that worsened near the end of last school year.
The resignations and retirements have been linked to a number of factors, including poor retirement benefits compared to other states and districts, flat state funding and the toll the pandemic took on teachers who have described feeling exhaustion and burnout in its aftermath.
This fall, the district is still contending with a shortage of support staff in particular — including nutrition staff and special education instructors — and is working on creating other hiring incentives, including a wage boost and hiring bonus for many of those positions, Bryantt said. He said continued support and competitive pay are dependent on an increase in state funding.
“I’m so supportive of having fully staffed schools, and I just hope that we have a hero in Juneau that can help us in this great time of need,” he said, referencing the school district’s budget deficit and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto this summer that reduced spending for public K-12 schools in Alaska by $87 million. Warning of the potential for staff cuts, Bryantt and Anchorage School Board President Margo Bellamy have called on state lawmakers to override Dunleavy’s veto.
Bryantt said the district would need to figure out this winter where the lost funds would now come from in order to avoid layoffs.
”I want to keep as many educators as I can,” he said.
Abbott Loop Elementary closure
This year marks the first following the closure of Abbott Loop Elementary. It was the only school to shutter — out of six initially proposed for closure — as part of an effort to reconcile a projected multimillion-dollar budget shortfall for this school year.
Former Abbott Loop students were relocated to Trailside and Kasuun elementary schools starting this year, and the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School has now moved into the old Abbott Loop Elementary building.
At Trailside early Thursday, first grader Mateo Amora, who was sporting a Sonic the Hedgehog backpack, said shyly that he was excited for his first day of school.
He was one of 30 students to transfer to Trailside from Abbott Loop. His mom, Zhezle Amora, described the transition to a new school as an adjustment for Mateo and his whole family.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “It’s a transition for all of us.”
Seclusion and restraint practices
A U.S. Department of Justice settlement with the Anchorage School District last winter required the district to end an illegal practice of using seclusion rooms, and reform its restraint practices.
The settlement was the outcome of a three-year investigation that found a pattern of violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the district, from 2018 to 2021.
The settlement agreement required the district to end the practice of secluding students — or locking them alone in a room — in all schools by this fall.
Bryantt said Thursday that the district “suspended seclusion in ASD permanently, and reformed restraint, instead replacing them with better practices,” which means the expansion this year of what Bryantt called a “multipurpose, de-escalation room.”
“It’s not a room with the lock. It’s actually a room with lots of comfy furniture, lots of calming lights, calming music, and a staff member who’s there to calm a student down in their time of great need,” he said.
School bus service
School district officials said this month that they anticipated no repeat of last fall’s severe school bus driver shortage, which left thousands of students without reliable transportation for weeks at a time as the district struggled to fill the vacancies.
District spokesman MJ Thim said that the district had reached full bus driver staffing as of this week, with 227 drivers for all of the routes it covers.
Bryantt on Thursday described the first day of bus service as smooth, and attributed the improved staffing to an approximately 20% pay increase that the district implemented last fall for school bus drivers — from less than $21 an hour to $25 — and a shift in scheduling that allowed all drivers to work year-round, instead of needing to seek employment elsewhere.
Bryantt had previously attributed part of last year’s hiring challenges to drivers finding work in the tourism industry for the summer, and those jobs not ending in time for the start of the school year.