Funding and staffing emerge as challenges for Anchorage School District’s planned career academies

As the Anchorage School District prepares to launch a major curriculum change for high school students beginning next year, administrators say they’re unsure how they plan to fund and staff for the proposed career track initiative.

Earlier this fall, the district announced that it planned to launch an ambitious initiative next school year beginning with a freshman seminar that would require all ninth grade students to spend one designated class period per day exploring career possibilities and their own skills and interests.

Then in fall 2025, sophomore students would choose a career track to focus on for their remaining three years of high school. Each high school would have between three and six academies for students to select from. The track would include job trainings, internships and certifications meant to help prepare students for life after graduation.

In an interview this week, a school administrator said a freshman academy is on track to launch next fall as a semester-long course that will replace an ancient history course.

But the district still needs to come up with additional funding for the “career track” portion that’s set to launch in 2025 — and the full cost of the initiative is still unknown, said Kersten Johnson-Struempler, the district’s senior director of secondary education.

She also said that rising class sizes — which many educators say are a result of a major staff shortage and flat state funding — could pose a challenge when it comes to offering additional, specialized courses at each high school.

“In our current budget, right now, we’re listed as having essentially 32.5 students per teacher at the secondary level for high school. And if you can imagine a career academy class where you’re running power tools or doing other things that are a safety issue, having 32 students in the teacher’s care is probably not a safe situation,” Johnson-Struempler said.


The initiative is funded in part by a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. But that includes just $3 million a year for five years and won’t cover the full cost of the initiative, Johnson-Struempler said, which could include additional staffing, transportation and trainings.

“We do need need to talk about funding for our district, and staffing,” she said. “That is a concern.”

In interviews, several Anchorage School Board members expressed similar concerns about how the district might pull off what board member Andy Holleman described as “a huge change” for students, staff and families.

Holleman said in an interview that other school districts around the country that have implemented similar models have “dramatically more staff than we have, by multiples.”

“I have many questions about the academies,” board member Kelly Lessens said. “Funding is one of them.”

Holleman said he was concerned that the district’s current high rate of staff vacancies paired with the uncertainty of additional funding at the state level would make it challenging for the district to pull off the change.

“Right now, I really have a hard time understanding how they will make it work,” Holleman said.

The topic of public school funding and teacher pay has been a main focus in the Alaska Legislature this session and for local school boards statewide. Last month, legislators fell one vote short of overriding Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of a bipartisan, $200 million education package that included a historic funding increase for the state’s public schools.

[Hundreds of Alaska students participate in statewide walkout protesting flat school funding and education bill veto]

Time is running out in the regular session for lawmakers to pass another comprehensive education bill. A path forward toward a compromise on education funding that includes Dunleavy’s stated priorities on charter school and homeschool provisions remains uncertain.

The Anchorage School District’s planned career academies have been framed as part of a broader community effort to address the city’s shrinking workforce and a stubborn labor shortage, and make Anchorage a more desirable place for students to stay after graduation.

More than half of Alaskans born within the state have moved away, according to a recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In 2021, Alaska had a higher rate of outmigration than any state but Wyoming, according to that data.

Lessens also questioned whether the district would be able to afford the academies, given its recent budget challenges amid years of flat funding at the state level.

“Status-quo funding is not sufficient to allow the academies to launch in the way the administration has depicted them,” she said.

Johnson-Struempler said this week that the district was committed to the academy launch, and said there were more than 400 people from the district and the Alaska business community working on standing up the pathways.

The district planned to spent much of next year “reworking our resources internally, potentially looking at grant funding, and then also looking towards the Legislature and what happens with that funding for how we move forward with the staffing and resources needed for the career academies,” Johnson-Struempler said.

In a recent public meeting, schools superintendent Jharrett Bryantt told the Anchorage Assembly that an additional increase in the pupil-teacher ratio could “jeopardize” the initiative. “The academies are very vulnerable to flat and unstable funding predicaments that we find ourselves in,” Bryantt said.


The district plans to announce the specific academies to be taught at each high school on May 20, Johnson-Struempler said. The district has said it plans to offer transportation for students interested in a career path at a different high school.

Parents and families can provide input or ask questions about the program via a form on the district’s website, at

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