‘Bold, transformational initiatives’ for Anchorage schools leave unanswered questions

Students walking through a hallway.
Students at Romig Middle School rush to class after hearing the bell on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage public schools will see three big changes for the coming school year: Start times are shifting, sixth graders are moving up to middle schools and the district is shifting to a career academy model for most high schools.

The Anchorage School Board approved all three changes over the last year and a half, but not without significant skepticism. With less than two months until Anchorage students head back to school, some are questioning the viability of career academies, the most significant overhaul of the three.

The Freshman Academy Career Exploration course is designed to allow students to learn about potential career paths in their first year of high school. Students can choose a career path to continue studying as sophomores or opt out of the program altogether after one year.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said all three changes are meant to help students succeed.

“ASD is embarking on some bold, transformational initiatives next year, and it’s going to be a good one,” Bryantt said. “Change is difficult, but just know that these changes were made because we really want to move the needle on academic achievement for our students.”

Kelly Lessens was the only school board member to vote against the career academies plan. She’s concerned that the result will be fewer resources for students who really need the help.

“I don’t think that the academies will be detrimental to students’ graduation rates, but I don’t think that we’re allocating resources optimally,” Lessens said.

The district faced a budget deficit of nearly $100 million this spring and considered cutting popular programs such as IGNITE and elementary school art classes to make up the deficit. The final budget only cut about 20 jobs but relied heavily on an increase in funding passed by the Legislature. The district plans to spend $3.5 million this year hiring teachers to support freshman academies, and that will be paired with federal funding.

As sophomores, students can enroll in an academy at their school or choose a career path offered at another school, though the district has not yet announced how it plans to provide transportation. Students can change their choice of academies just once.

Over Lessens’ lone “no” vote, the School Board approved the Career Academies Master Plan in early June, and it’s supposed to be in place for freshmen when school starts in mid-August.

School Board President Andy Holleman voted in favor of the academies but said that many questions remain unanswered about the program. The district will have several opportunities to make changes before the full-fledged academies begin in the fall of 2025. A key juncture will be next spring, when freshmen can enroll for the academy of their choice or opt out, Holleman said.

“I think the biggest thing was including an opt-out for everything except the freshmen class,” Holleman said. “When we reach the point where students are registering for pathways, that will give us a clearer idea about, one, how much the program is valued overall, and how much particular pathways are valued at different locations around town at the different schools.”

Nationally, the first career academy was implemented in 1969, and the model has become increasingly popular over the last 30 years as a method to increase graduation rates and bolster the local workforce. Similar career academies in Akron, Ohio and Nashville, Tennessee took much longer to fully launch, Lessens said.

Lessens and Holleman are both worried that the district needs more funding to successfully implement the career academies program.

“Where’s that $3.5 million going to come from?” Lessens asked. “I’m afraid that it’s going to pull resources from maybe our elementary school settings, or maybe our middle school settings, or sports and activities. It’s hard to know where the resources for that are going to come from.”

The district plans to accept help from available industry partners next year, but Lessens wondered exactly how much help is on the way.

“In Akron, Ohio, Goodyear — a corporate giant — is a leading academy partner. I don’t know who Anchorage’s academies is leaning on to become our Goodyear,” Lessens said. “Who is willing to step up and be our Goodyear at this point in time?”

And the concerns are not limited to just students.

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, said he’s concerned that, as the career academies program expands to other grade levels in the fall of 2025, a needed schedule change might require teachers to cover more material in less time.

Aist is worried that will contribute to Alaska’s already high rate of teacher turnover.

“Staffing in general is a huge issue, and the more issues educators have, the more likely they are to leave the school district and go look for employment somewhere else,” Aist said.

Parents had raised concerns to the School Board about a possible decrease in class time devoted to core subjects in order to expand the schedule to eight periods per semester, as opposed to the six classes students take currently.

Bryantt said, essentially, it’s a wash.

“From the teacher perspective, they’re working with fewer students per day, and they have a longer block where they can go deeper, or cover content in innovative ways,” he said.

Bryantt also noted that passing period time would be reduced with four classes per day. 

Classes will start for most Anchorage students Aug. 15.

a portrait of a man outside

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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