Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt had a tumultuous first year at the helm of Alaska’s largest school district.
Anchorage schools dealt with a shortage of bus drivers, a multi-million dollar budget deficit, an unprecedented string of snow days and a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over discipline methods.
But Bryantt noted bright spots, too, like upcoming changes to the way Anchorage schools deliver instruction.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’ve gotten a lot of great things accomplished, too,” he said. “This past year, we had a number of operational crises that we had earlier in my year. But as soon as January hit, the focus quickly pivoted to our board goals and guardrails which are on reading, math, college career and life readiness.”
In an interview this week about his first year as Anchorage superintendent, Bryantt touched on a number of topics that have stood out about the school year. Here are a few.
ASD failed to hire enough bus drivers to transport all 43,000 students daily at the start of the year. Students were organized into cohorts and only received bus service for three weeks at a time, going without district-provided transportation for six consecutive weeks.
With 25% raises to driver wages and tourism companies releasing drivers from their seasonal jobs, the district was able to return to full transportation service in December.
Bryantt said the district is hoping to avoid the issue in the upcoming school year, and is currently hiring bus drivers.
“We are in a much better position than we were last year,” he said. “In addition to raising the wages for bus drivers, we’ve also asked all of our bus drivers for their commitment going into next year earlier than ever before.”
Bryantt said 140 bus drivers have committed to returning in the fall, but another 68 are still needed.
Facing a $68 million budget shortfall, the district considered closing as many as six schools, but the school board decided only to close Abbott Loop and Ursa Major elementary schools when the budget passed in February.
Last week, the Alaska Legislature approved a state budget that added $174 million to public school funding, the largest increase in state history.
But, it’s just a one-time boost. Bryantt said that creates uncertainty that’s unhealthy for the community.
“The cost of doing business in education and other fields too is rising,” Bryantt said. “I’m definitely pleased that the Legislature has decided to invest in education. But another part of me is a little nervous about the long-term state of education. Because the thing is, is that one-time increase doesn’t address the structural deficit shared by ASD and other districts across the state.”
After a massive school bond failed in 2022, voters approved a $37.8 million school bond in April for projects including roof replacements, and safety upgrades. Bryantt said that Anchorage voters can expect smaller, yearly bonds to appear on ballots in the future.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think that there’s the will and the community to invest in our schools so we don’t have these issues as a result of massive snowfall or what have you,” Bryantt said.
Bryantt oversaw the district’s shift to put all sixth grade students into middle schools, which will take effect next school year. He said the change will create a more unified experience, since right now only a few middle schools have sixth grade.
“That was controversial,” Bryantt said. “That’s not universally popular. But it’s something that is important to me, because I realized that some sixth graders in the city had access to a lot of different electives and Career and Technical Education courses and others didn’t.”
The Anchorage School Board also voted to approve changes to when classes start for elementary, middle and high school students — but deferred those changes until the fall of 2024.
Additionally, students will begin class later on Mondays starting next school year to allow teachers to receive training in “Professional Learning Communities.” Bryantt said that school buildings will remain open at their regular time on Mondays to limit schedule changes for parents.
College, career and life readiness
Bryantt said that he and the school board are focused on reading and math, and a push for college, career and life readiness. Bryantt said the district “is in the middle of an exciting college, career and life readiness transformation,” with plans to eventually turn its high schools into “career academies.”
“You’ll still have all the great programs that you have today, such as you know, language immersion programs and college prep programs. But on top of that, every single student will be expected to select a pathway that is aligned to the industry here in Alaska,” he said. ‘You’re not committed to entering that job out of high school, but you are committed to engaging in hands-on work that’s aligned to really exciting jobs right here in town, because we want to keep our students here in Anchorage.”
Bryantt said that the initiative is not one the school district has entered into alone, but is a collaboration with city partners including the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, the Anchorage Chamber and other businesses and nonprofits.
While school is out for summer, some students will attend summer classes from June 5-29. The school board’s last meeting before their summer break is June 6, and the first day of classes in the fall is Aug. 15.