State’s largest school district, 48K students to be led by an Alaskan–but which?

Dr. Deena Peramo, left, and Dr. Steve Atwater are the two finalists in ASD's search for a new superintendent. Photos courtesy of ASD.
Dr. Deena Paramo, left, and Dr. Steve Atwater are the two finalists in ASD’s search for a new superintendent. Photos courtesy of ASD.

The 48,000 students in the Anchorage School District could have a new superintendent as early as next week.

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The district is unusually large for a city the size of Anchorage, ranking 97th in the country. That brings along a sprawling array of needs that have made it difficult to find and keep a superintendent. A months long search has yielded two candidates with very different experience across Alaska’s schools.
Inside the auditorium at Bartlett High School, about a hundred people listen as school board president Kameron Perez-Verdia introduced candidates during a community meet and greet Wednesday evening.

“Let’s get started and hopefully this will be fun,” Perez-Verdia said from the stage. He asked audience members to write down their questions as he explained how the school board went from 84 applicants to just two finalists.

“Both candidates are from Alaska. Both have extensive K-12 experience. And both have worked as superintendents,” Perez-Verdia said.

First to speak was 46-year-old Dr. Deena Paramo, who came to Alaska in 1991 by way of Texas.

Paramo went from a teacher in Glenallen to the superintendent for the Mat-Su school district, earning advanced degrees along the way. One of her daughters is an undergrad at University of Alaska Anchorage, the other a high school senior in Wasilla.

“I’m quite familiar with many of your high schools: they beat us all the time,” Paramo said, getting scattered laughs from the crowd.

During her remarks and about 40 minutes of questions, Paramo addressed general proposals for dealing with evolving technology and financial constraints. But she focused more on her track record and approach to juggling the needs of teachers, legislators, families, and students.

“I have a really great job and I’m not leaving because anything is terribly wrong, I’m leaving for the best opportunity in the state,” Paramo said. “Anchorage is really the hub of Alaska.”

After a short break, the next finalist, 57-year-old Dr. Steve Atwater, stood behind the lonely podium facing the audience. Since September of 2015, Atwater has worked as the interim dean at the University of Alaska’s School of Education in Fairbanks, and was in the running for this same superintendent screening process four years ago.

“If you were there four years ago there’s a t-shirt in the back of the room for you,” Atwater joked in his opening remarks.

Like Peramo, Atwater has been an educator in the state for a long time. But his career is a little more varied, having spent almost two decades in the Bush before taking over as superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s school district. Those experiences inform how he’d like to see ASD better approach diversity and student achievement.

“Anchorage, as you well know, is a very diverse school district, and it’s great to hear that–but so what?” Atwater asked before a long pause.

“I think that’s a great thing to talk about, but unless every one of those children are excelling,” he continued, “it doesn’t mean anything.”

Atwater spent a good chunk of his time during questions laying out a plan to recruit more teachers into ASD from communities in Anchorage and rural Alaska. He spoke at length about how technology might be used to adapt to fewer teachers in classrooms as state funding shrinks, emphasizing that such a restructuring is a long-term project.

“I liken the Anchorage School District to one of these big container ships that’s coming up Cook Inlet,” he said. “The ship doesn’t slow down outside Kincaid Park or Fire Island, it starts to slow down outside Nikiski because it takes a long time. And the district’s the same way.”

After the presentations ended, Perez-Verdia explained in a brief interview that the school board is aiming for more community involvement in the hiring process than in the past. This time around, they set up an advisory group, surveyed 1,900 people, and for the duration of the day brought the finalists to different schools and community meetings.

“School board members have been receiving literally hundreds of emails from students and from the public sharing their thoughts,” Perez-Verdia said. “All of that is a big part of this process and it will make a difference in terms of our decision.”

Asked whom he prefers, Perez-Verdia said he hadn’t yet decided.

But for some, the event made the choice obvious. Deena Mitchell has children in ASD schools and is part of Great Alaska Schools, a statewide education advocacy group. She came to the meet and greet with an open mind about which candidate she wants to see in the job.

“But the evening here was hugely, hugely illuminating for me personally,” she said.

“As a parent in the school district I really thought Dr. Atwater had wonderful, wonderful ideas,” Mitchell said, adding that Atwood’s diagnosis of the school district’s performance resonated with her. “Our system is not working any more.”

The school board will make its decision before the weekend, but not announce whether the candidate has accepted the offer until their Monday meeting.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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