If we want test scores to improve, we need to address students’ needs

One of the most uplifting parts of campaigning for Seat B on the Anchorage School Board has been hearing community members’ commitment to a quality education system. I have heard in conversations and in community forums that Anchorage holds high expectations for all of our children, that people understand that we need to apply evidence-based solutions to our educational standards, and that our community values partnerships among parents, teachers and community organizations.

It’s important to acknowledge that Anchorage School District’s reading outcomes often lie at the center of these discussions. Our community’s concerns about reading scores have arisen because we share a fundamental understanding that students must learn to read before they can read to learn, and that if we don’t address this need in our primary grades, we will continue to live with unacceptable social and economic disparities.

As the parent of two elementary-aged children and as an activist who has worked to improve student outcomes in ASD by better priming our kids to learn — by ensuring that all of our children have adequate time to meet their basic needs for nutrition and physical activity — I’ve sought to understand ASD’s K-3 reading goals and gaps for some time. I’ve voluntarily forged connections with members of the Alaska Reading Coalition and the Anchorage NAACP’s Education committee. I have learned more about the science of reading from ASD teachers and administrators. And I have paid attention to ongoing attempts to improve reading outcomes at the state level, as well.

As a candidate for Seat B, I am committed to ensuring that all of our children are taught and become fluent in the five key components of effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. These core skills are particularly important because Anchorage students enter our K-12 system with huge ranges in their foundational (background) knowledge, their pre-literacy skills and their overall kindergarten “readiness.” And while all students will benefit from these core skills, they are particularly important for our dyslexic students and those who enter the education system with the fewest pre-literacy skills.

I also recognize that meeting our community’s goal of improving our K-3 reading outcomes requires additional structural supports. We must provide enough high-quality pre-kindergarten classrooms to meet our actual needs, commit to evidence-based class sizes capped at 15 students or less for grades K-3, implement universal screening for dyslexia, and protect time for teachers to receive ongoing professional development in the science of reading and to collaborate with their peers.

Finally, if Anchorage voters are serious about improving our student outcomes, school board members must also support children’s age-appropriate developmental needs. My commitment to student wellness — which encompasses their social-emotional growth and their physical and mental health — distinguishes me from anyone else running for Seat B. The work of Pasi Sahlberg, whose advocacy behind Finland’s high-performing educational outcomes has commanded international acclaim for more than a decade and a half, deeply informs my values. All children, Sahlberg insists, need SEED, “systematic exploration, experimentation, and discovery,” in order to achieve academic success. What does that mean for ASD? It suggests that just as we must commit to the science of reading, we also need to ensure that our school days value and support our youngest learners’ development and engagement through projects, songs, stories, conversation, creativity, curiosity, imagination, sharing, sensory needs, pretend, role-playing, collaborating, social-emotional growth and gross motor skill development.

If Anchorage voters want to see long-term improved academic outcomes, they need to elect school board members who will commit ASD’s time and treasure to both the science of reading and to the science of children’s developmental needs. I believe that ASD is capable of helping every student become a competent reader and a curious, engaged student, and look forward to advocating for every child to reach their potential. I would be honored to earn your support.

Kelly Lessens is a parent, the cofounder of the ASD60 advocacy group, and a candidate for Seat B on the Anchorage School Board.

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