Anchorage School Board advances career academies plan but adds an opt-out

In a 6-1 vote Tuesday night, the Anchorage School Board voted to move forward a career academies initiative that could reshape the way Anchorage students attend high school — but added an option for families to opt out of the sophomore-to-senior-year portion of the program.

In the Academies of Anchorage program, modeled after career education programs in Nashville, Tennessee, and Akron, Ohio, all high school students would spend one semester of their freshman year taking a required course to explore career possibilities and interests.

Sophomores would select one of the career tracks offered and complete courses including job training, internships and certifications. The eight comprehensive high schools would each house between three and six academies, ranging from options such as “industry and construction” at Bartlett High School to “health services and education” at Chugiak to “leadership in law and business” at South.

The change would be major, moving the daily schedule to eight periods and possibly necessitating travel between schools for students who don’t want to pursue a track offered at their home school. The district has said it would need to hire 30 additional teachers for about $3.5 million to offer the schedule.

Tuesday’s board vote means the rollout will begin this fall for freshmen, with a one-semester career exploration course.

The full academies are not planned to launch until the 2025-26 school year. And on Tuesday, the school board signaled it isn’t done weighing in on the details of the career academies, passing an amendment that said the board would “further collaborate with district administration and refine the Academies of Anchorage Master Plan through the annual budget adoption and revision process.”

The amendment also added an option for families to opt out of the grades 10-12 requirements of the program. All freshmen will still be required to take the career seminar, which replaces a required social studies class.


Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said the option for families not to participate was “something we support, as well.”

“I do think it’s reasonable that some families know that their plan for their students wouldn’t involve some sort of career or technical education pathway,” he said.

But what that looks like hasn’t been decided, said MJ Thim, a spokesman for the district. The district “will begin planning the details of this alternative and will share updates with the school board and families in the future,” he said.

The proposed academies have drawn skepticism from parents and from former district executives, who have pointed out that the district faces crises in staffing and funding.

The school board still has “multiple decision points” as the district launches the academies, including the annual budget development process, said Thim.

At Tuesday’s meeting— sparsely attended on a warm summer night — local business leaders testified to their hope the academies would eventually produce high school graduates qualified for jobs in industries that need workers, such as construction, health care and transportation, and to address the trend of young, educated Alaskans leaving the state and not returning.

About one in three kids who live in Anchorage at age 16 live in another state by the time they are 26, said Jenna Wright of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.

“It will stem the bleed of our talented young Alaskans desperately needed in our workforce,” she said.

But some parents and students testified that the planned academies would disrupt their academic plans, forcing more class periods into the day with less depth and taking time away from courses studying history and social studies. They said the district hasn’t communicated enough detail about how the academies would be funded and staffed.

“These changes are drastic and deserve to be thoroughly vetted,” said Jared Boling, a district parent.

Some board members expressed concern about how the school district would be able to launch a wide-reaching program at a time when it is facing significant budget shortfalls.

“I’m not going to cut other programs to establish this one,” said board member Pat Higgins.

Bryantt pointed out that while around 40% of the district’s students go on to attend college, only about 25% end up earning a college degree.

Board member Kelly Lessens was the sole no vote. She said she wasn’t convinced that the district can adequately fund the program in the long term, with an anticipated budget deficit of up to $91 million she said was due to a longtime flat funding of the base student allocation.

“Lots of things are going to have to give because of our projected deficit,” she said. “And they’re going to have to give a little more in order to launch this.”

The district received an initial $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to cover next year’s freshman portion of the program. But that money isn’t guaranteed going forward, and Lessens said the estimated cost to run the program yearly means other programs would suffer as a result.

“I think we’re in for a challenge to fund things the way they deserve to be funded — both the academies and the rest of our K-12 program.”

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.