Kelly Lessens

Age: 40

Family: Spouse & two elementary-aged children

Occupation: Full-time parent, volunteer, candidate

Previous government experience or community involvement: Classroom volunteer, PTA member, co-founder of the ASD60 advocacy group, parent representative for the Anchorage School District Wellness Pilot

Highest level of education: Ph.D.

What is the latest book you’ve read? Or, what book do you recommend and why?:

I’m actually working through two books right now: Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures,” and have also started Susan Engle’s “The Intellectual Lives of Children.”

Why are you running?

I am running on a platform of child-centered decision making. This means that I am laser-focused on the policies and budget priorities that will support student wellness, equity, and learning. These priorities are an extension of my work on Anchorage School District’s Wellness Pilot to promote evidence-based recess and lunch times in all of our elementary schools. Through my advocacy, 8,000 students received additional time for nutrition and physical activity, which decreased hunger, improved students’ time-on-task and readiness to learn, and promoted lifelong health and social-emotional skills.

Now, I am ready to build on the experiences I gained during that process. Although every candidate running for Seat B is doing so to improve education in some way or another, I’m the only one:
• intending to make decisions and allocate resources with respect to promoting the whole child;
• with a track record that has improved student outcomes in ASD;
• who is a parent with children currently enrolled in ASD, and who understands firsthand the challenges that Zoom-based school has entailed for families across the municipality;
• who has consistently promoted evidence-based, equitable return-to-school frameworks;
• who has sought out community members’ experiences and priorities in regular listening sessions throughout this campaign season;
• and who is committed to pursuing the resources that schools need for students to succeed.

What is the role of the school board as it relates to the school superintendent and the operation of the district?

It’s my conviction that Board members must pursue and center evidence with respect to long-term student success in their decision-making processes. That said, the board is fundamentally elected to translate the public’s values and priorities into action by:

• hiring ASD’s administrative leadership (the Superintendent);
• shaping the district’s policies, directing its budget priorities, and framing its goals and guardrails so as to give the administration clear direction;
• and holding the administration accountable for the actions it takes to meet those measurable objectives.

Do you support public money funding education in public schools? (Yes-No) Why?

Yes. Alaska State Statute and a suite of legal cases have made it very clear that public funds are required to provide “adequate” public education systems across the state of Alaska.

Do you have children in Anchorage public schools now? How did they handle pandemic virtual learning? If they attended in the past, how was that experience?

My husband and I have two children enrolled in a neighborhood ASD elementary school right now, in Kindergarten and 4th grade. Prior to online learning, our eldest child had flourished in a community where the staff was (and still is) dedicated to differentiated learning, collaboration, social-emotional development, and a host of PTA-sponsored activities.

Our family was able to navigate the switch to remote learning in a number of ways. First, we promoted regular, masked, outdoor social interactions with a handful of our kids’ close friends. We went outside (in all weather conditions) before, during, and after “school” in order to promote the kids’ physical activity and socialization. (We also tested our family regularly for COVID.) This sustained our collective mental health and allowed our kids to have breaks from time in front of their devices. Second, our family was able to provide devices, space, and parental oversight during the learning-at-home process. A major upside was that the kids regularly had opportunities to practice their executive function skills, ie by deciding what assignments/opportunities they wanted to pursue, and when. They were responsible for accomplishing certain tasks or objectives, and learned about consequences when they chose to do be off-task. They also became pretty computer savvy; it’s been interesting to watch them engage with technology in curious, playful ways.

Even so, learning at home was often stressful for our family. It shifted normal parent-child relationships to a “did-you-get-that-done-yet?-If-not-here-is-what-needs-to-happen-now” dynamic, frequently led to unpleasant conversations regarding what was (or wasn’t) accomplished in a given day, and contributed to the kids’ loss of the autonomous social interactions they would normally have at school. The absence of direct teacher-child interaction, moreover, meant that the kids’ development of certain skills was just pushed to the back burner, or required additional parent interventions. Our kindergartener, for instance, had zero interest in learning from me how to hold a pencil. Our fourth grader needed more help with long division. Although we were able to provide some assistance, ultimately a credentialed teacher has authority and experiences that a well-intentioned but under-trained parent does not.

Can the ASD continue to afford so many different schools of choice? Could these many options be a distraction from the mission of excellence for all students?

ASD offers many options to its families. These range from schools-within-a school, to language immersion programs, to optional, alternative, and charter schools. Because the range is so broad, the varied approaches allow differentiated learning to take place at a structural level. ASD’s options, in theory, permit any child to attend a school of choice regardless of zip code.

To terminate these programs in favor of total standardization across every ASD school—to allow the weaponization of test scores, combined with calls for fiscal austerity, to forcibly create a back-to-basics-only approach to learning everywhere, for every child—would throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we homogenize our schools and eliminate important programs, students will lose opportunities to learn in novel ways, teachers will lose opportunities to implement what decades of research in areas like SEL reveal (ie that the systematic integration of social-emotional learning throughout the school day actually deepens academic understanding and amplifies the skills that employers value the most), and the move to drill-and-kill conformity might drive many families away from the district, leaving ASD as a less-communal shell of itself.

However, we need to be aware that there are significant barriers that dissuade or prohibit every interested student from enrolling in one of ASD’s lottery-based programs. These appear to include the relay of basic information about ASD’s special programs, transportation to and from their sites, and the food services, and/or available supports for English language learners or Special Education students that are, or are not, available. So I’m encouraged by the new Board Guardrail which instructs the Superintendent to not leave any demographic underrepresented in ASD’s schools of choice, and I look forward to seeing the administration pave a smoother path for all students to explore ASD’s options.

Now, as to the question of funding all of ASD’s programs: I think that we need to talk about the funding ASD receives from the legislature. This February, thanks to Federal funds allocated to meet COVID-related needs, ASD did not have to prepare a budget for FY 21-22 that reflects its true shortfalls. We didn’t have to ask for millions of dollars in supplemental funds, or figure out which cuts would hurt kids the least (health instruction? IGNITE? Safety? Class sizes?). Yes, the cost of delivering education is expensive in Alaska, including Anchorage. And yes, taxpayers certainly deserve to know that their funds are being stewarded wisely! But Anchorage needs to understand that its schools are being asked to deal with large numbers of children who are fundamentally under-prepared to enter the K-12 system. Only 18% of ASD’s entering Kindergartners were measured as “ready” to do so in 2020, according to DEED. Part of this reflects the fact that many families can’t afford or can’t find openings in private or public preschool programs here in town. In fact, 23% of Anchorage households with kids between 0-5 put them in unlicensed care facilities, and another 18% of those households are unable to find even that. We have hundreds of children on preschool waitlists. Moreover, ASD is tasked with educating large numbers of children who are entering school with high rates of poverty, language barriers, adverse childhood experiences (trauma, abuse, neglect, chronic stress), and/or who need Individualized Education Plans. Dealing with these social issues is expensive and requires trained personnel. ASD has yet to be able to adequately fund the evidence-based pupil: teacher ratios (less than 15 students at the K-3 level) that we know will measurably improve student reading outcomes, and is unable to provide SPED and ELL programs the resources, staffing, and professional development they truly need to meet kids’ needs. It’s time for the Legislature to adjust the Base Student Allocation—which it has not done at levels needed to meet inflation since 2010—as a first step, and to consider making an adjustment to ASD’s “Cost Factor,” as well.

What ideas do you have to incentivize the best and brightest teachers to come to this district and do great work? What ideas do you have to encourage teacher longevity?

There are two key issues at play when it comes to incentivizing the best and the brightest to do great work in ASD: retention and recruitment. We have to focus on the former before the latter, however, to be persuasive!

To support teacher retention, ASD leadership needs to improve its communication with existing teachers as changes are proposed. To do this, they must seek teacher buy-in and feedback as new programs are rolled out and listen to—and even source high-level decisions from—teachers’ own ideas or experiences on given issues. (I think that districts in other parts of the country may offer model contract language with their teachers, as well, which encourages increased communication between educators and administrators by compensating individuals for time provided above and beyond their defined duties, ie for participating in the end-of-day meetings that inevitably are required to parse how new programs would be rolled out.) Something similar could be said about ASD’s relationship with its principals, as well, and the need to retain talented principals. (Earlier this winter, members of the Principals’ association bravely spoke up about their unmet needs and deep frustrations about communication and collaboration.). In certain areas like SPED, where teacher burnout leads to very high turnover rates, it’s my understanding that proper staffing ratios and contractual implementation of teacher preparation time would aid in teacher retention. I also believe that additional time and support for professional development and for collaboration would be key in improving teacher and principal retention rates across the K-12 system.

Recruitment of talented teachers—and especially of a talented teacher workforce that more closely mirrors ASD’s diverse student body—is related to retention. We must seek the best and the brightest by pitching everything that Anchorage has to offer as a city, and of course we need a healthy, vibrant city with steady leadership for that. We must pitch ASD as a desirable professional community for teachers to invest in, and show how their work will be valued. We must have high expectations for teachers’ skillsets, while offering mentorship opportunities and ongoing support for teachers’ own growth and professionalization. And as part of the recruitment efforts for highly qualified teachers, we need to focus on increasing the number of highly qualified teachers of color. We know that when any student is taught by a teacher of color, all students benefit. However, when students of color are taught by teachers of color, these students experience significant increases in academic performance, graduation rates, and college attendance. In a majority-minority district plagued by significant gaps among student outcomes, that’s no small consideration.

National studies indicate closed schools and/or prolonged online learning has not been successful for all. What ideas do you have to recover this learning loss?

We know that there are gaps.

In order to address or diagnose what’s needed, and at what scale, we’ll need to figure out where every student is at. Then, we need to focus on in-person opportunities for students to accelerate their learning (while still being exposed to appropriate grade level content so that we don’t create ongoing “debt” cycles of learning—ie needing to catch up from the times they were pulled out). To accomplish this, I would use ESSR II funds to provide significant summer school “acceleration” options and/or targeted tutoring groups between May and August. These could look like intensive “acceleration academies” (8-12 kids/group over a 1-2 week span), or frequent, short-duration high-intensity tutoring with very small groups of students and trained instructors. (I’d like to make sure to incorporate time for play, too–a kind of summer camp experience layered alongside academics to help with SEL needs.) Moving forward into the coming academic year, I would also use Federal funds to aggressively cap K-3 classrooms at under 15 students and grades 4-8 at 25 students. Finally, I would want to crowdsource subject matter experts (ASD’s educators) how they think we can use the district’s increased tech capacity to promote flipped classroom learning opportunities, long-term student engagement, and project based learning.

But none of this will be one-and-done. Because of the ongoing nature of the pandemic’s economic challenges, ASD will need to provide additional nutritional support for students, track increasing numbers of students who may be considered homeless or in transition, and be ready to optimize virtual learning should that need arise again.

How will you reach out to the different community constituencies to hear concerns about their students’ education?

It’s fundamentally important for Board Members to understand community constituencies’ concerns and goals.

For the past three months, I have hosted online community listening sessions about a range of subjects related to ASD’s system (the information and list of topics are on my website). I’ve reached out to teachers, parents, and community members to understand what has worked, what needs improvement, and have tried to understand what matters to them and why. I am grateful for participants’ collective input thus far.

Another part of my campaigning has involved visits to community councils on Zoom. It’s been a privilege to listen in on conversations about hyper-local matters (ie what’s of concern in Spenard is different than in Eagle River, or the Hillside), and to get a sense of how important education is to so many people.

That said, it’s made me think critically about what Board Members need to be doing to adequately connect with a broader range of community members. Although elected Board Members are each assigned a handful of community councils, frankly, the people who are able to attend CCs on a regular basis generally have the privileges of time and internet access, and lack language barriers. That’s not something that every member of our community can say. Given that, I think the Board should pursue direct connections with other kinds of organized groups in town. Perhaps the Board could publicly call for groups who want a Board liaison to register their group with ASD, as a starting point?

Finally, at a larger level, the Board might need to be reorganized someday so as to have a more localized focus—ie have Board members elected from different parts of the municipality (like the Assembly)—so that Board members can strive for deeper relationships with the people, groups, schools, PTAs, churches, and other organizations within a defined part of the community.

Given the rich diversity of our school district and community, what is the best approach to equitably meet the needs of all students, regardless of socio-economic differences?

My short answer is to ask whether our policies promote wellness, equity, and learning for all students. The longer version of my answer is that we can more equitably meet all students’ needs by:
• Expanding ASD’s preschool options, included its blended programs (which integrate students with special needs alongside general education students), to increase options for all families and improve kindergarten readiness, district-wide. Nationwide, evidence has shown that every dollar invested in quality early childhood programs yield returns between $4-$16, increase high school graduation rates, and decrease suspension, grade-retention, needs for social services or special education.
• Capping K-3 classrooms at less than 15 students and grades 4-8 at 25 students to promote real improvements in reading, while providing teachers with the professional development they need to assess and target students’ needs.
• Supporting the middle school model. As one teacher reminded me, when middle schoolers begin this period of life, they are like kindergarteners once more, and the more we can support them in this crucial transition period, the better prepared they will be for high school success.
• Adjusting school start times to reflect best available evidence linking later start times for high school students to increased learning outcomes, improved mental health, and safety.
• Increasing time dedicated to physical activity and nutrition across the K-12 system. These key parts of the school day are proven to improve time on task, students’ readiness to learn, and decrease disciplinary problems.
• Increasing time dedicated to inquiry/play- and project- based learning, so as to improve student engagement, creative thinking, executive function, and problem solving skills.
• Protecting time allocated to subjects like science and social studies, which have fallen behind in the race to focus on literacy and numeracy.
• Ensuring that curricular materials are both culturally representative and accurate;
• Increasing the time allotted for teacher professional development and collaboration; countries like Finland do a much better job at ensuring that educators have ample access to these crucial parts of their days.
• Integrating social-emotional learning throughout all curricular options. In math, for instance, students can be taught to take risks presenting their thinking, considering others’ perspectives, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, and receiving suggestions from peers. In history, literature, or science, meanwhile, students can be taught to reflect on ethical and moral choices that people have made. SEL needs to be a fundamental part of the school day, and has been proven to benefit all children—but especially low-income children and those with high numbers of adverse childhood experiences.
• Shifting from parent-driven requests for gifted assessments (which currently rely on parents’ ability to advocate for their students and nonverbal assessments which don’t identify subtends of low socio-economic backgrounds at the same rate as students from high socio-economic backgrounds) to gifted assessments rooted in differentiated instruction and systematic teacher observation, so that teachers can assess students’ problem solving abilities and levels of inquiry. To that end we can also do more to integrate low-income students into low-poverty schools, which would have a substantial positive effect on these students’ achievement scores and could increase their access to gifted services.

What ideas do you have to ensure that English Language Learners and students with disabilities have equal learning opportunities in the Anchorage School District?

ELL and SPED students need individualized, targeted supports if we want to optimize their learning outcomes. Supporting their needs is a good example of equity in action.

We have more than 100 languages spoken in ASD, and Anchorage is home to the most diverse census tracts and schools in the nation. Every English Language Learner enters ASD with a different set of needs, so ASD should be responsive to individuals’ backgrounds, competencies, and circumstances. To this end, I think that ASD needs to be especially proactive, creative, and sensitive when engaging with the families of ELL students to understand what those needs look like. ASD also needs financial nimbleness to adequately support any overlapping needs – ie ELL students who also qualify for SPED services, and/or for free & reduced lunches, and/or for Gifted services. We need to recognize that some ELL students enroll in ASD as fully literate in their native languages, and they will require different kinds of interventions than those who have not had such former schooling. To that end, at the elementary level, we need to ensure that our tutors are highly trained and compensated for the important work they do in working with ELL students, to get them up to speed. And in secondary education, ASD may need to consider reinstating the Newcomer Center to better support high school students entering the ASD system. In addition, when it comes to our Gifted programs, which significantly under-enroll ASD’s ELL students, we can adjust the current reliance on parent advocacy and verbal assessment in favor of teacher- and observation-driven pathways, which will have downstream effects like encouraging more ELL students to pursue advanced coursework.

In thinking about SPED students, they, too have complex needs and the student-family-school district partnership is fundamentally important. I’ve learned that families of SPED students are frequently exhausted and overwhelmed with their ongoing needs to advocate for their kids’ needs. Many shared that they would benefit from a formal liaison in ASD and/or informal support groups (ie to be able to connect with other parents) to better navigate the world of Special Education. Others related that young children with IEPs would benefit from additional blended preschool options in ASD. Families consistently related that the quality of SPED teachers varied, largely due to the teachers’ degree of prior training in the field of SPED.

To that end, when I’ve spoken to teachers in SPED, it’s become clear that they, too, have concrete needs to be able to provide equitable learning opportunities for their students. SPED teachers often leave teaching entirely after only 3-5 years due to burnout. This could be addressed administratively through 1) a commitment to ensuring that staffing needs are fully met, 2) formal mentorship opportunities, 3) additional prep time to adequately design interventions for their students, 4) consistent, planned, and coordinated cycles of professional development, and 5) the provision of up-to-date, research-based curricular materials.