Anchorage’s new schools superintendent confronts bus driver shortage and low enrollment as the academic year begins

A man in a suit leans toward two elementary-school-aged children in the foreground.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt visits a classroom in June. (Robert DeBerry/Anchorage School District)

School is back in session across the state, and it was the first day of school Thursday for Alaska’s largest school district, in Anchorage.

And, this year, Anchorage has a new superintendent.

Jharrett Bryantt begins his tenure with a shortage of bus drivers causing reduced bus service — a crisis, as Bryantt calls it — as well as other staffing issues and concerns about safety felt nationwide following one of the deadliest-ever school shootings in U.S. history, near the end of last school year in Uvalde, Texas.

As school is getting started in Anchorage, Bryantt says there are both short- and long-term plans to address those problems.

Listen:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jharrett Bryantt: There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to bus driver staffing. We have about 55 people who are in the queue to start driving ASD buses by the end of September. And we’re hoping that number continues to go up. Recently, we had about 70 vacancies. So, gradually, we’ll be able to start having conversations around, what does restoring full bus service look like in the coming months?

Casey Grove: Speaking of, I guess, ASD is dealing with a teacher shortage as well, like a lot of places. In your previous role in Texas, you had worked on teacher recruitment and retention, right? So were their tactics from that past job that you think will work here in Anchorage?

JB: There are. So in my previous role, I led talent. So my job focused on the evaluation, the recruitment, the retention, the compensation of 26,000 employees in my previous gig. Here, there are many of the same challenges, and there are a lot of things that we haven’t tried here in ASD that I think that we can. For example, I noticed this summer that we had vacancies in special education. So we were able to provide additional compensation to that specific subgroup of special education teachers. And that’s new. Giving additional compensation in Alaska to a very particular part of a bargaining unit is not very common, and I think it’s a step in the right direction.

On my end, though, something I’m excited would be around the retention to being an ASD employee. I really want people to come to ASD and have long fulfilling careers here. So I think about teachers, and there are unfortunate realities around policy in Alaska that keep some of our teachers here from getting defined benefits, a path to having a retirement, a long-term retirement plan, which is not common in a lot of states. So unless we take action on the district level and the policy level, we’re on track to be a revolving door of educators. And that’s not what I want. For our current teachers, (I’m) thinking about, where do they get energy? If you want to be the best teacher in the city and the Pacific Northwest, what can I do to get you training? Maybe get you national board certified, maybe give you opportunities to coach your peers or to be a department chair, that to lead your teams. Those are the types of things that I’m really proud of that we did in Houston that gave people a sense that, “ASD is looking out for me. ASD wants me to be here for my career. And they’re looking out for me, not just for my needs of today but for the needs that maybe I don’t even know that I have that come four or five years from now.” So I’m really hoping to create a stronger talent lifecycle when it comes to our employees. In fact, attracting and retaining talent is one of my three priorities a superintendent.

CG: Talent lifecycle. I’ve never heard that phrase.

JB: That’s right. That’s my HR jargon for you.

CG: Some of that, to me, it sounds more like policy and maybe higher level stuff. But when you’re interfacing directly with teachers, what are the kinds of things that you’re talking about to try to, you know, build support or build trust with them?

JB: I want to understand what a day is like in their shoes. What are the things that they’re thinking about? What does support look like? So for example, I got to welcome hundreds of new teachers to ASD for the first time a couple weeks ago. They’re so excited, their optimism and enthusiasm is sky high. And we designed a couple of days for them to really talk about the stuff that new teachers are going through or somebody new to ASD is going through. And we got to target that. And I think there are things that we can do for experienced teachers to really target their needs. That’s the direction I want to go with all of our groups in some way, shape or form, including our principals. So we need to make sure that their professional development is ongoing and relevant to what they’re thinking. And that’s not going to happen unless I get out there, and I ask them like, “Hey, like, what are you thinking about? What do you need support with? How do you want to become better? Do you feel that you have all the tools in your toolbox to be successful? What’s keeping you up at night?” And that way, as a leadership team, we can take action that helps address this at the system level.

CG: You mentioned talking to teachers and principals about the things that keep them up at night. And I know some teachers, and I know some parents, and one of the things that keeps them up at night is worrying about violence in schools or like a school shooting situation. And I hate to bring that up, but I just wonder what do you think about that? What is ASD doing to prevent a situation like that?

JB: Safety is at the forefront of my mind. I’m from Texas. I’ve been to Uvalde, Texas, and I know it’s very scary to be in an event in which the safety of our staff and students is put in jeopardy. There are a lot of things that the school district can do to help augment that. I’m noticing a lot of gaps in our infrastructure. I was at Denali Montessori (Elementary) today, which actually is a model for what I want for all of our schools. We had an event at Denali Montessori not too long ago where it could have a terrible situation, could have escalated and gotten into our schools, and a safety vestibule kept someone involved in an altercation from entering that school. An emergency button was pressed that allowed police to be deployed to the school within two minutes. That’s something that I want for every school. And we need to compel the community to stand behind us to make those investments in infrastructure. That could look like a bond. That could look like advocacy at the state level. But we need to do whatever we can do to get this infrastructure right as quickly as we can. I am alarmed about it.

CG: Let’s talk about enrollment. I guess enrollment has been declining in the Anchorage School District for a few years. And the thought is that that kids are going to private or homeschooling. What do you think about that? And what can the school district do to get students to enroll in the district?

JB: So you’re absolutely right, that enrollment is declining over the past six years. ASD’s enrollment has dwindled from about 48,000 to about 43,000. And we’ve been a little flat since then. In terms of families choosing different options, that would be a little bit more on the anecdotal side. I will say that homeschooling did become more popular during the pandemic, but I will say that we have a number of homeschooling programs here in ASD. So a number of our students are essentially just switching schools. That wouldn’t impact our enrollment number. Sometimes, I will say that there are a couple of thousand students that are enrolled in statewide correspondence programs that are not ASD. That is a lever. I would not say that’s the full reason why our enrollment’s declining. I think we need to look at demographic changes. Guess who’s leaving? It’s people in the age group of 31 to 42, the ones most likely to have families. And one of my charges a superintendent, when I heard that is, you know, they asked, “What are millennials looking for when they’re choosing a city?” just like I chose this great city. They’re looking for great schools and great neighborhoods. So that’s really my charge as superintendent, is to ensure that we have a world class education that’s compelling to families that have children so that they move here. I want people with kids to move here because they know, “Wow, well, if I make the move up to this great state, not only do I have this amazing outdoor experience and awesome neighborhood that I can move to, but I have a fantastic school that’s going to prepare my kids for college career life and beyond.”

CG: Does that kind of get towards the outcomes? I mean, I’m sure all school administrators would want test scores to be higher. But is that part of it, I mean, showing that you can provide that education?

JB: Test scores is a piece of it, but it’s also the full experience. We have a lot going for us in ASD. We offer so many compelling education options. I was just at a Montessori school this morning. We have a couple of International Baccalaureate programs. We have immersion programs. A lot of people might not even know that we have the breadth of these offerings. So a piece of that is just marketing, even to people that live in the state that may not know, “Wow, like, there are a lot of great opportunities here in Anchorage.” And I know that a lot of my colleagues, who are leaders in the city, are thinking about, “Yeah, how do we really pursue opportunities that will contribute to a great economy,” as well. Let’s think about jobs and think about attracting new employers into Anchorage. Like how do we really set ourselves up to be this destination city that people are considering when they’re looking to make a move? Same thing for people that are straight out of college or ready to make a life change. Like how do we really put this on the radar as a place that’s great for people that want to come here, have kids here and really grow at our enrollment. So it’s not just this internal battle amongst families choosing options locally. It’s also this bigger picture of how do we position Alaska to be known as the great state that it is to everybody?

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.