Anchorage students finished their first quarter on Friday, but many eyes are already on next school year, when the Anchorage School District will roll out three major changes. ASD Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt says the first change will be that all sixth graders will be middle school students. The second change has to do with school start times.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jharrett Bryantt: So these conversations happened all throughout last year, and the (Anchorage School Board) voted on two important things related to start times. One took place this year, which was the shift to Professional Learning Community Mondays, also known as late start Mondays to the community. So that means every week, our families start school one hour later on Monday, so teachers can engage in professional development.
The other thing that the board voted on was an adjustment to school start times. But that’s not going to be effective until the 2024-25 school year. And that’s because as you can imagine, a change in school start times doesn’t just impact ASD. It affects the traffic lights, it affects our small businesses, it also raises a lot of questions around childcare. So the board thought it’d be prudent to have an entire year to think through all of the mechanics so we can have a clean launch going into next year.
Now to take a step back, why did we have this conversation around start times? And the answer is that there’s a lot of research that shows that the current start times in ASD aren’t aligned to the science of adolescent sleep. There’s a lot of research, and a lot of districts have implemented changes to where high school students and older students, preteens to teens, are starting school later. So going into next school year, our elementary schools will start first at 8 a.m., then our high school students will start and then our middle school students will start. So this change is aligned to the science of adolescent sleep. And the research suggests that by doing this change we’ll see an increase in alertness for high school students, increase in cognitive function, memory, retention, and then of course attendance and academic outcomes.
Wesley Early: So the last major change will be introducing career academies for high school students. Can you explain how that’s going to work and why the district is moving towards this career tech focus now?
JB: That’s a great question. So about two years ago, the school board adopted three goals that govern the entire district. One is on reading, one is on math proficiency and the third is on college career and life readiness. And, you know, that CCL goal is just so bold, and it really enticed me to come to ASD. Almost my entire career has been in that space of college career and life readiness. So I really wanted to help make that goal my own and achieve it in a way that is going to really help Alaska and the Anchorage community for many years to come.
So what that means is that to achieve this goal of college career and life readiness for all ASD students, ASD will be transforming all of its seven comprehensive high schools into what we call ”career academies.” So what this means is that every single student in high school will be expected to participate in pathways, also known as academies, that are aligned, not just to any job, but to high-demand jobs that are here in Alaska. And I think the really exciting thing about this initiative is that it isn’t just ASD creating an initiative in a silo. This was us going out to the business community and creating strategic partnerships, months before we unveiled this to the community.
So ASD is in the conversation, of course, but also the Municipality is in the conversation, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation is in the conversation, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, the business community. And we all came together and we realized that we have severe workforce challenges here in Alaska and here in Anchorage.
We’ve also noticed that one in three young people are leaving Alaska. We also noticed that we have fewer working age adults than we’ve had in many years. And what ASD is committed is that we want to be a part of that solution. So by creating these academies, I envision that in five years, we’ll be graduating thousands of students that have dual credit. They’ll have had experiences and apprenticeships right here with businesses here in the Anchorage community.
WE: So the Alaska School Activities Association board recently passed bylaw changes that prevent transgender girls from competing on sports teams that would match their gender identity, which seemingly goes against previous ASD guidance on the issue. How do you anticipate Anchorage will handle these issues that balance student safety with athletic fairness?
JB: Sure. I’m a big believer in local control. And I truly believe that local school boards could have decided this issue for themselves. The situation that we find ourselves in is that the State Board of Education has taken it upon themselves to create regulations that essentially govern interscholastic sports. So the other complicated piece to this is that ASAA has implemented these bylaws in the middle of a sports season, which is very jarring for students and families.
So above all, I want to make sure that ASD has inclusive spaces for all students. This is an incredibly difficult time to be a student that has gone through multiple years of, you know, closures due to COVID, Snowpocalypse — I mean, I’m joking about Snowpocalypse — but we’ve gone through a lot and we’re seeing these mental health concerns from students.
We’re seeing, you know, really severe behaviors for a number of different reasons. We’re seeing staffing shortages across multiple industries. That means students don’t have access to the support services they need from their state, city, and local government entities. And to throw on top of this, some sort of regulation that makes students feel unsafe and unwelcome, doesn’t sit well with me. And I want to do what I can to make sure that we support all of our students and also understand the intent of the bylaws, and to implement them with fidelity as best as we can.
But I will say that there are a number of bylaws like that that have been passed or discussed in other places that have resulted in litigation. I do think that it would be incumbent upon somebody to raise an alarm bell because these types of conversations are not making students feel safe or welcome. But of course, we want to, you know, pay close attention to those conversations and do what we can, both to be in compliance with local regulation, but to also ensure that our students know that here in ASD, we welcome you.