Anchorage School Board to vote tonight on controversial career academies plan

A logo is painted on a wall between the Alaskan and American flags.
The Anchorage School District Education Center. (Valerie Lake, Alaska Public Media).

The Anchorage School Board is preparing to vote Tuesday on whether to implement a career academies model at high schools starting this fall. 

The academies would require incoming freshmen to spend one of six daily classes learning about a potential career. Students would then select a career path as sophomores and have only one opportunity to change their mind.

The model has drawn criticism from some who are worried about funding, staffing and diminished classroom time for other subjects. But district leaders have promoted it as a way to boost job training opportunities and graduation rates.

“Our goal is to develop a system that results in an increased graduation rate,” Kersten Johnson-Struempler, the district’s senior director of teacher and learning, said during a presentation to the school board last month.

The district held a kickoff event for the career academies initiative last fall. If the plan is approved Tuesday night, most of the eight high schools would have three career paths students could choose from. Choices include law, public safety and education, industry and construction, science and health services and business and leadership.

The district secured a $15 million grant for the program from the U.S. Department of Education, but does not have a plan to fully fund the program going forward.

Mark Foster, a former chief financial officer for the district, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News calling the plan “fatally flawed.” In an interview, Foster said the plan is “deficient.”

“Going into a new program in the face of uncertain funding and very limited and diminishing reserves, strikes me as not being as fiscally responsible as the historic practice of making sure you have the money to sustain whatever your start,” Foster said.

Foster is also worried that the academies will be at the expense of core academic subjects. Students would lose class time for core subjects as the district moves from a six-period to an six-period day to add the academies.

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association teachers union, is among those skeptical of the plan. He is concerned about the added workload for teachers without additional compensation.

“Can we afford it? Not without additional funding,” Aist said. “Can we support it? Not without additional staffing.”

District administrators say it could take an additional $3.5 million and 30 additional teachers to implement the academies.

With the meeting set for Tuesday at 6 p.m., newly-elected Board President Andy Holleman said the board is split on whether to approve the plan.

“About half have concerns about what our revenue from the state is going to be, and whether or not this would be the best use of those funds across the whole district or across all of our comprehensive high schools,” Holleman said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many class periods Anchorage students will have in a day next year. Students will have six classes per day, not eight.

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Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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