Anchorage School Board hears community pleas to save IGNITE gifted program

The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday night heard from frustrated parents and teachers who asked the board to reconsider cuts to a popular program for gifted students, among other changes.

It was the first opportunity board members and the public had to weigh in on the Anchorage School District’s proposed budget for the upcoming school year that includes millions in cuts meant to offset a nearly $100 million deficit.

In often impassioned commentary, board members and district superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said years of nearly flat state education funding has put the board and school district in the difficult position of making painful budget cuts they have in past years avoided.

“The fat is gone. We’ve torn into the muscle,” said Bryantt, who added he will go to Juneau this week to advocate for increased state funding.

The cuts include eliminating dozens of staff positions, increasing class sizes, reducing summer school options and purchases of school supplies, and spending down nearly all the district’s rainy-day savings account.

“I won’t sleep at all tonight,” said board president Margo Bellamy in reference to the proposed cuts.

“This won’t be as good of a district if this is our budget,” said board member Andy Holleman.


Much of Tuesday night’s public testimony centered on the district’s plan to cut nearly all of the teachers in the IGNITE gifted program for elementary students and replace the program with a weekly class that would serve all elementary students but cost less, according to administrators.

IGNITE — “Including Gifted Needs in Today’s Education” — is a pullout program for high-performing elementary students. In past years, the district has proposed cutting the program, though it has always restored funding after hours of public testimony in support.

“If we couldn’t do IGNITE, it would hurt so many of our hearts,” said 8-year-old Adina Roberts, a second-grader at Chinook Elementary, who said her favorite part of the program was getting to do more science including “making a lemon battery that actually made electricity, and playing with plasma balls.”

Parent Namory Bagayoko also testified against the cut, describing IGNITE as “the most anticipated, engaging and challenging class of the week” for his twin third-graders, both of whom participate in the program.

“It sparks creativity, curiosity and a desire for deeper, independent learning for our children,” he said, describing some of the lessons his children loved: creating a miniature submarine and dissecting an owl pellet to learn about its diet.

Jennifer Phillips, who has been an IGNITE teacher since 2005, asked the school board to “stand up for this program,” describing the years of cuts the program has already faced and the value it holds for her students, whose attendance rates she said are well above the district’s average.

“IGNITE teachers are stretched thin,” she said: Just 20 teachers serve more than 2,000 students.

“So many of my kids say they come to school because of IGNITE,” she said.

In a presentation during the meeting, school administrators described their new cost-saving plan for replacing IGNITE: cutting 18 of the program’s 20 teachers and designing a weekly class for all students that would include “hands-on” lessons in science, technology, art, engineering and math — or STEAM.

The plan appeared to eliminate dedicated elementary health and art teachers or specialists, shifting those lessons to classroom or STEAM teachers, which administrators said would help reduce costs.

“We’re trying to be creative and look at how can we do things differently under the circumstances that we have, and how can we still do right for kids,” said Erik Viste, elementary senior director with the district.

Viste in his presentation also noted disparities in which students were accessing IGNITE, and said part of their proposed solution was meant to close that gap: While around 26% of students in second through sixth grades are Alaska Native, Black or Hispanic, those students accounted for just 15% of IGNITE students.

Holleman described the proposal as an imperfect solution to a challenging financial problem and said of IGNITE, “I just don’t think we can afford it.”

“We should acknowledge to the parents and the staff and the students that we’re not replacing (IGNITE) with something that’s the same or better,” he said.

“We’re out of ideas,” he said.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at