Rachel Blakeslee

Age: 31

Family: I live with my husband, Matt Blakeslee, and my two year-old daughter (future ASD student!).

Occupation: Manager of National Corporate Partnerships at Teach For America

Previous government experience or community involvement: Alaska Black Caucus Ally for Change; Collaborative for Health and the Environment, member and advocate; Amigos de las Americas, former alumni board chair; American Water Resources Association, former University of Washington President

Highest level of education: I hold a bachelor’s in International Studies and Political Science from Southwestern University, and a master’s in Marine and Environmental Affairs from the University of Washington where I focused my research on school environmental health issues.

What is the latest book you’ve read? Or, what book do you recommend and why?: The most recent book I read is called Barefoot and Balanced, which I’d highly recommend as it talks about how outdoor play and unstructured freedom of movement are vital for kids’ development. Not only is this a huge focus of mine, but I also appreciated the engaging and fun examples this book provided of ways to help kids achieve the movement they need to be healthy and happy.

Why are you running?

As a mom and a former teacher, I know that education is the greatest tool we can give our children. As a lifelong advocate for kids with over 10 years of experience in the education sector, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to ensure that all students — regardless of their background or zip code — have access to the high-quality education that they deserve. I want to fight to strengthen our public schools so that each and every one of our kids can realize their full potential.

I have a dual background in and passion for environmental justice and education that stems from my unwavering commitment to ensure every child has the chance to grow and develop in a healthy and supportive learning environment. And I believe that background will allow me to serve the diverse needs of our incredibly diverse student population.

I am running for school board because I believe in our kids and I believe we can do better.

My platform is focused on improving equity and relevancy in education, growing and retaining a diverse teaching workforce, creating inclusive and nurturing learning environments, and bringing the community into decision making processes. I have seen firsthand the power that united communities can have in uplifting students in the face of adversity. Anchorage students are our city’s future, and I believe that together we can ensure their futures are filled with possibility.

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

The school board serves as a governing body, making policy and establishing goals and priorities that guide the direction of the district. The superintendent is then tasked with carrying out those responsibilities, meaning the board governs and the superintendent manages. Above all else, the school board’s job is to listen to and represent the best interests of the community it serves — ASD students, teachers and families.

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

Yes I do. I believe that every child deserves the right to a high-quality public education. I think public education is a cornerstone of our democracy, and investing in it is quite literally investing in our future. Public funds provide critical resources to keep public schools open and accessible to all. Without public money, we would deprive many kids of the educational opportunities they deserve.

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?

I do not have children currently attending Anchorage public schools. My daughter is two and will attend ASD in a few years.

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?

I think ASD’s schools of choice provide excellent alternative educational opportunities that support some of the unique learning styles of our students. In principle, having these options should align with ASD’s mission of excellence. However, the key issue with ASD’s schools of choice is that they are not really choices available to all students. Despite the great things these programs offer, we continue to have a huge problem of access. Without available public school bus transportation, many students cannot physically get to these programs even if they do manage to gain enrollment through the lottery system. The lottery system itself is not an intuitive process, and requires that a child have a parent with the time and knowledge to learn about and engage in that process. Charter schools for example can make consistent parental involvement a requirement for admittance, creating yet another barrier for children whose parents simply don’t have the free time to engage in such time-intensive ways. By nature of making the opportunity to pursue these programs accessible only to students with inherent resources already at their disposal, the district has created massive inequities that undermine its mission for excellence for all students. Failing to address and solve for these inequities is what ASD cannot continue to afford.

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?

Developing an effective teacher recruitment strategy requires having an effective teacher retention strategy. If we want to recruit the best and the brightest, we need proof points that show our teachers feel supported and are encouraged to stick around. And we cannot hope to solve our teacher retention problem without fully understanding why it exists. While the teacher shortage in public education is a national problem, the root causes vary based on local contexts. In order to attract and retain high-quality teachers in Anchorage, we need to do a better job at gathering concrete, measurable data that indicates why they leave in the first place. And we need to do a better job at not just surveying teachers’ satisfaction as a formality, but actually responding to their input, and showing them what concrete change results from the feedback they take the time to provide. We can then evaluate that data to discern the best solution to find and keep the best teachers for our kids. In doing that, we can create an environment that then attracts more teachers. While recruiting the best and the brightest (i.e. talent) is critical, so is representation. A growing number of studies also show that students benefit enormously from having teachers who reflect their identities. While it’s important we focus on finding innovative ways to increase the teaching talent in Alaska, we also need to remember the students we serve. ASD has some of the most diverse schools in the country. Over 50% of the district’s 41,000+ students are people of color, and 110 different languages are spoken among ASD families. Given this, we have both a unique opportunity and responsibility to intentionally focus on ways to increase the diversity of our teaching force as we evaluate how to grow it.

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?

Luckily, there are also emerging national studies that have given us credible, evidence-based recommendations to help us address this very question. Now is the time to capitalize on that research and implement some of the strongest strategies that have proven effectiveness. For example, we should explore and offer more opportunities for expanded learning learning time (e.g., extended school-days, extended school year, structured after-school programs, weekend school, summer school– which the district already plans on doing, etc.). The key here with all of these options is to ensure students get to learn in smaller groups, and that instruction is grounded in both core subjects and is culturally relevant. We should also invest in high-quality, 1:1 (or extremely small group) tutoring. Ad hoc and once a week tutoring typically isn’t that effective, but frequent, dedicated tutoring has been shown to have incredibly positive results on academic outcomes. While high-intensity, individualized support with small student-tutor ratios may not seem feasible to implement at scale, we could use more paraprofessionals, recent college grads, and community groups/nonprofits to provide that kind of tutoring, thus tapping into additional talent while keeping costs lower than it would be to hire certified teachers to do all this work. Additionally, we could start by targeting students who need this level of support the most, leveraging current and future data to identify students at the highest risk for long-term learning loss. Additionally, we should balance the dual needs of meeting students where they while also continuing to expose them to grade-level content through scaffolded supports that keep high expectations for and a high belief in all kids. Finally, we need to be proactive about providing families with accessible resources (i.e. in various languages, etc.) to help their children at home in whatever capacity they are able to. This could look like creating an online hub of tools that can be filtered by grade level and need, with instructions on how to implement them. For families that don’t have internet connectivity or computers at home, having a phone-based inquiry system could provide a potential alternative — one that allows parents to call in, describe what they’re looking for, and have someone pull resources from that hub and print them out for the parent to pick up.

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

If I were elected, I would focus on creating more two-ways methods of communication between district leadership and the community. For example, right now the community can provide input to the school board on key issues and agenda items through written or oral public testimony. But these mechanisms are missing a critical feedback loop that creates meaningful dialogue. And they are also missing real transparency. While testimony goes on the record, not all community members are pulling up school board meeting records to stay abreast of what’s been said by their fellow parents and teachers, and see how the district has responded to those concerns. I would work to create more informal, transparent, and accessible online platforms for engagement where anyone from the community could post questions, see what others have asked, as well as all responses to those questions. I personally would not only be accessible via phone and email, but would have routine hours set aside where anyone could contact me, ask questions and engage in a dialogue (e.g., informal online or in-person office hours with rotating locations).

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?

While this is not an exhaustive list, I believe there are five key areas we should focus on to ensure we meet the needs of all students:

1. Provide increased, tailored supports for our students: As we grapple with how to make up for a year of lost learning, we need to offer students varied supports to catch them up to where they need to be. We should be intentional about offering ample resources to make this possible: extra tutoring, additional intervention supports, strategic and differentiated summer school instruction, targeted teacher PD, and parent resources to help their kids at home.

2. Equitably allocate resources and learning opportunities: As evidenced by years of ASD data, our most marginalized students have been suffering disproportionately for far too long. We also need to allocate resources and learning opportunities equitably to ensure that our kids who need the most support receive it, and that all kids have equal opportunity to gain entry into gifted and talented programs.

3. Provide improved and relevant 21st century educational opportunities, including digital and financial literacy: We are living in a digital age, where technological proficiency is critical for students to develop the skills they need to succeed in today’s economy regardless of their pathway. Not only are these tools essential for remote education, but they have long been essential to all learning in the 21st century (e.g., to complete homework, access information, learn basic research skills, etc.). We need to both close the digital divide by addressing the massive inequities in access to devices and connectivity, and increase the provision of innovative curricula and instructional supports for our teachers that will help them deliver a relevant education to all children. Additionally, a key aspect of ensuring students are college and/or career ready is ensuring they have the tools to make financial decisions for themselves. It is our responsibility to send students out into the world equipped with the tools to build the futures they want for themselves. We need to make financial literacy a core component of our students’ educational experiences.

4. Provide students with more fresh air time during the school day: There are countless studies that show how spending time outside improves overall health, mood, behavior and cognitive function, especially for children. If we are serious about improving our students’ academic performance and overall well-being, we need to substantially increase the amount of time they are spending in nature.

5. Offer students more social emotional support and culturally relevant instruction: We need to provide students with the supports necessary to create the safe, inclusive, and welcoming learning environments they deserve. This includes offering more mental health services, focusing deeply on social emotional learning, and expanding culturally relevant instructional practices so students can see themselves in the content they’re learning.

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

As a former bilingual education teacher, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I believe there are a number of mechanisms we could strengthen to promote equity for English Language Learners (ELL) and our students with disabilities. For example, we should focus on assessing students fairly in a way that separates language skills from content skills. We should also provide all of our students with quality instruction, accurate evaluations, tailored resources, and equitable accommodations. This could be in the form of offering additional time to decipher content and formulate their thoughts during tests/other academic exercises; providing alternate learning and instructional modalities (e.g., visual, audio, etc.); offering useful tools to aid in learning and evaluation (e.g., giving an ELL learner a dictionary or thesaurus to use; allowing ELL learners to write or describe something in their native language first to formulate their thoughts, and then work on translating it afterwards; providing tailored IEPs; etc.). For our students with disabilities, I think it is extremely important we reduce our use of labels, as disability labeling can often result in lower expectations for those students, negative biases from teachers, and negative overall evaluations of student success. Instead, I think we should talk about the supports that students need using people-first language. A disability should not become a reason for a child not progressing, and the services they require are just that,  services, not adjectives that should describe a student’s permanent or long-term status.