Anchorage School District plan to cut dedicated elementary art classes and health instructors draws concern

The Anchorage School District is proposing a major change to how art and health instruction is delivered in elementary schools next year. That plan, which would require dozens of teachers to reapply for jobs and replace a popular program for gifted students, is drawing pushback from parents and educators.

The change was presented last week as part of the district’s budget for the upcoming school year, and includes cutting dedicated art classes for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Those lessons would be replaced by a weekly hybrid class for all students that merges five subjects into a single hour: science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM. Additionally, the STEAM class would replace the IGNITE program for gifted students.

The district is also proposing eliminating two dozen dedicated elementary school health instructor positions, and having that subject be taught by classroom instructors instead.

The school board is set to vote on the plan as part of its overall budget at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 27. The board was originally set to vote on Feb. 20 but school officials said Friday the vote was delayed to allow for more time for public comment.

The proposal to reshuffle elementary education is one of many trims and reductions included in the district’s budget for the upcoming school year, meant to offset a nearly $100 million deficit it is facing amid flat funding for public education at the state level.

The changes to elementary education are expected to save the district about $2.2 million. However, they’re drawing criticism from educators who expressed skepticism that art and health can be meaningfully incorporated into more general coursework.


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“I’m just heartbroken for my students. It’s been a very emotional week,” said Chelsea Ambrose, who teaches art at Kincaid and Gladys Wood elementary schools.

Under the STEAM program, math would continue to be taught by classroom teachers, but the new class would supplement lessons with hands-on learning and project-based assignments, said Erik Viste, senior director of elementary education with the school district.

Students “would be tackling real-world problems” by “using science, design theories, or scientific theories from the engineering and from the science pieces to solve hands-on, real-life problems,” Viste said in an interview. He said no curriculum had been developed yet for the new program.

“It would include art, so art wouldn’t necessarily be going away,” said Viste, who first presented the plan during an Anchorage School Board meeting last week. He said the plan would serve all elementary students, but ultimately cost the district less.

“STEAM can actually expand our artistic elements,” Viste said. ”This would align with our local economy: When you’re looking at our industries, a lot of it is science-based,” he said.

The changes would mean that the district’s nearly 50 elementary art and health teachers, along with 18 of IGNITE’s 20 teachers, would lose their current positions at the end of the school year and need to reapply for newly posted STEAM instructor positions — or other vacant teaching jobs — if they want to continue teaching in the district.

“What we would be doing is posting those (STEAM) positions, they’d be a full-time positions, and we’d be encouraging anyone to apply, including art teachers,” Viste said.

Viste said the goal was to preserve some of the creative learning opportunities IGNITE provided to students while also saving money. IGNITE — “Including Gifted Needs in Today’s Education” — is a beloved program for high-performing elementary students. The district has proposed cutting it to save money in previous years as well, each time garnering hours of public testimony in favor of the program.

While IGNITE was only for higher-performing students who tested into the program, all students would participate in STEAM. In an earlier presentation, Viste noted disparities in which students were accessing IGNITE, and said part of their proposed solution was meant to close that gap.

In interviews, some teachers described the value of having art and health taught as their own subjects.

“Art matters,” said Nerissa Thorson, who recently switched to teaching art after a 17-year career as a classroom teacher because of the value she believes art provides to her students. “Art is really important to child development, to being creative.”

“It’s really unfair and unjust to the subject, and to the professionals who are teaching it,” said Jenell Hartman, who teaches health at multiple schools in the district.

She said she doesn’t think classroom teachers will have the time to teach health on top of their packed schedules, and that health is an essential subject that includes a wide range of essential topics — from hygiene, first aid, menstruation and sexual assault to mental and physical well-being.

“For students, if they didn’t have health, I think that they would lose a lot,” said Hartman. “Everything we teach them is literally how to take care of the bodies they have,” she said.

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Ambrose was similarly skeptical that important elements of art education wouldn’t be lost.


“I am really fearful that it’s going to be something like studying salmon, and you do some science with the salmon, and then the art component is sketching the anatomy of a salmon. Which isn’t art,” she said. “Can it be beautiful? Yeah. Does it involve some fine motor skills? Absolutely. But is that really art? Is that an activity that’s going to harness your creativity and artistic bravery?”

‘Only because we don’t have the funding’

School board member Andy Holleman said in an interview he hoped the public understands that what is being proposed is the result of a lack of adequate state education funding, which has put the district in a difficult spot.

The state’s per-pupil funding formula, called the Base Student Allocation, hasn’t significantly increased since 2017, and has been far outpaced by inflation.

The Legislature returned to session last month with education funding as an early focus — but it failed to override the governor’s veto of $87 million in one-time education funding.

Alaska House Republicans then advanced a contentious education package with a $77 million permanent boost to school funding — far short of the $350 million annual increase education advocates have asked for. The package, which also includes funding for homeschooled children and a provision meant to increase the number of charter schools in Alaska, has stalled without support from a majority of legislators.

The Legislature last week began negotiations on the fraught education package.

“We’re cutting (IGNITE) only because we don’t have the funding,” Holleman said of the proposed changes to elementary education, adding that he’s received hundreds of emails from families who are concerned about the loss of the gifted program, and that he agrees with many of them.

He said he anticipated that the current proposal, if approved, would cause some art and health teachers to leave the district so they could fully teach their subjects elsewhere.


Teachers reached for this story described what they felt was a hastily launched proposal by school administrators that would have negative impacts on students and families, and was being presented without much time for public input.

For Hartman, the health teacher, the loss of dedicated health instruction would mean fewer opportunities for the kind of vulnerable and important conversations that can happen in a health class taught by instructors with hours of specialized training.

“Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault. And I think about that all the time when I’m teaching these kiddos,” Hartman said.

She teaches students about their bodily autonomy and sexual assault awareness as required under the Alaska Safe Children’s Act.

“Every year I’ve had kiddos report things to me after these lessons. And every year, I’ve had to call (the Office of Children’s Services),” she said.

Some art teachers said they were skeptical of the plan to incorporate art into a class with so many other subjects, and that they were uncertain whether they planned to apply to the STEAM positions next year.

“I think (the administration) is missing the point of art,” said Ambrose. “I think it’s coming from a place where they clearly are not in art classrooms, seeing the magic that takes place every day.”

Thorson, who teaches art at Girdwood, Inlet View and Trailside elementary schools, said her classes give students an opportunity to be creative and imaginative. She teaches everything from ceramics to printmaking to learning about form and shading, and trying oil pastels for the first time.

As a former classroom teacher, “I was watching students slowly lose time just to create and to be a kid. There was so much pressure put on reading and math, and it just didn’t feel what I wanted to do as a teacher anymore. It just felt like the fun kind of got sucked out of it,” she said.

Art also often offers something particularly meaningful to students for whom English is a second language, who have special needs or who may be struggling in other areas, she said.

“I truly feel that the art room really is the only place in the school now where all means all. Where all students can access that projects that we do, and all students can feel successful, no matter where they are academically,” she said.

[Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported that science lessons would continue being taught by classroom teachers under the new proposal. That subject would be taught by STEAM instructors.]

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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