OPINION: What a tour of Anchorage schools taught me

I recently toured 10 schools — elementary, middle and high — whose students come from my North Anchorage legislative district. I met with principals in each school and observed classes. My observations:

1. The students, staff, and parents are stressed.

The rise of social media and the pandemic have strained the social skills of students. One middle school principal told me that half of the “issues” at the school arose from social media.

The pandemic caused additional stress. Another principal said at her previous Anchorage school with about 300 students, 18 of the school’s parents died during the 2021-2022 school year (with 12 of them passing in one month) — all due to “COVID or COVID-adjacent” causes. That same school had a 45% transiency rate, which meant that almost half the students the year before did not return the next year.

There are brutal economic pressures on the families of students at schools in Anchorage’s low-income areas. One principal told me that while she used to expect two parents to have three jobs among them, she now expects each working parent to have three jobs. Families are facing eviction more often.

An elementary school principal said that there was usually a student discussing suicide at least twice a week. That principal noted that mental health issues were a particular problem given that schools often had either zero or one half-time counselor, while it often takes six to eight months for families to get mental health counseling outside the school.

2. The schools are stretched thin.


Years of flat funding in the face of inflation have left class sizes in these schools substantially higher than experts recommend for good learning, particularly for younger students. One principal told me that without additional funding, the third-grade classes at her school will have 32-33 students next year — roughly double the 15-18 students per class recommended for that age group.

Staff shortages are a chronic headache for most schools I visited. One principal told me that an absence of alternatives forced him to teach Spanish for the first two weeks of the school year when he had never taught it before. (We can’t count on everyone having a Spanish grandmother like he does.)

3. The compensation gap has become a canyon.

It has always been true that public servants are paid less than what they would receive in the private sector, but it has gotten out of hand. Experienced teachers and administrators are increasingly leaving for higher-paying jobs. A new principal told me that he had been offered a job that would pay him 2.5 times as much as he made while only working 30-35 hours a week, but he was sticking with the Anchorage School District because he was so committed to public education.

Another principal linked the growing absenteeism problem to Alaska’s terrible retirement system for teachers. You need “consistent quality talent” to get the students motivated to attend, he said, and we are losing that talent.

4. Solutions exist.

Fixing this requires both financial and cultural changes. We need to increase school funding, increase the number of educators and reduce class sizes. Teachers in Alaska have a crummy retirement system and also don’t get Social Security. Improving teachers’ compensation by returning to a defined-benefit system would allow the recruitment and retention of good teachers.

More broadly, we need to make education a desirable profession. One principal told me, “Take care of schools, and we’ll take care of society.”

A first-term legislator, Cliff Groh was elected last year to the Alaska House of Representatives in House District 18, which includes all of Government Hill; most of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER); and parts of North Muldoon, North Downtown, North Fairview, and North Mountain View. He is a proud product of Anchorage public schools.

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