Anchorage School Board seeks public comment on new race and equity policies

students playing at a playground
Students play during recess at Dena’ina Elementary School in Wasilla on Sept. 21, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

This year, the percent of Black students in the Anchorage School District who have received failing marks is double that of white students. For Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students, the number is nearly triple. Last year, the disparity was even larger, and 2018 showed a disparity, too.

Now, the school board is looking to address the persistent achievement gap with a pair of new policies focused on fixing poor outcomes for students of color and low-income students.

The first policy clarifies the district’s position on racism: It rejects all forms of racism, and will work with the superintendent to change “racially inequitable policies and procedures.” The policy also says district instruction should “encourage critical thinking on the history of racism in Alaska, America, and around the world.”

The second policy focuses on the need for instructional equity. It asks the superintendent to submit an annual report measuring student outcomes and the equity of resources allocated to schools and students. 

How exactly these policies might be acted upon in a classroom, and throughout the district, is largely up to the superintendent. But first, the policies have to be adopted by the school board.

The proposals have already drawn positive and negative reactions during recent school board meetings. Anchorage parent Regan Brooks testified at a March board meeting in support.

“I wish there was no racism or inequity in our schools, but as many people have shared in previous school board meetings and elsewhere, and as the district has illustrated with its own data, it’s simply not true,” Brooks said. “There is racial inequality in our system.”

But ASD teacher and parent Dawn Bockelman said she’s concerned other opinions are not being taken into account.

“Like teachers, the school board cannot be everything to everyone all the time, nor should we ask them to,” Bockelman said. “Our goal is education, and I would argue equal opportunity in education, not some undefined idea of equity with no endpoint as a solution.”

School board member Margo Bellamy brought up the concept for the policies and began working on them with board member Deena Mitchell last September.

The idea was to address issues she’s been concerned about for a long time, she said.

“I don’t care if you’re looking at graduation rates, who’s identified for gifted programs, who’s participating in high level courses or special ed courses … Black and Brown kids are not doing well,” Bellamy said.

Looking at ASD’s publicly available data from 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic, students of color — specifically Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students — are at the short end of nearly every measure including suspension rates, those on track for graduation, and reading and math proficiency.  

Superintendent Deena Bishop said she’s implemented practices in-line with the school board’s goals for equity, including initiating a $31,740 equity audit currently happening in the district.

Bishop said the new policies would formalize work she’s already doing. But, she said, working to address equity issues can be a lightning rod.

“We all feel like we’re really, really working hard and doing our best, but yet kids aren’t successful,” Bishop said. “So, then we think we must be doing something wrong, or there’s something wrong, and then it’s finger pointing.”

This isn’t the first time Bishop has spoken on issues of race. Bishop made a statement last summer following the killing of George Floyd, examined the role of police in the district, and highlighted the difficulties Native and Pacific Islander students have experienced during the pandemic

School Board President Elisa Vakalis said the board plans to host town hall meetings to hear more perspectives on the new policies. 

“The policies themselves, they’re right things to do, but they can be potential emotional triggers for people,” Vakalis said. “We want to make sure that we have as complete a picture as possible with all the community voices that want to have input on this.”

The first meeting will take place March 25 at noon. Another will take place March 30 at 6 p.m.

While school board policies may be considered guidelines, Vakalis said, there’s a lot a policy can allow the school board to do, and to instruct the Superintendent to look into. For example, the board has a goal of ensuring equitable access to the district’s charter schools. 

“What does that entail? Does it mean modifying our lottery system? Does it mean, modifying the boundaries of these schools to accept more kids in their immediate vicinity? Is it busing? What do we have to do as a district to make it fair for all kids?”

Vakalis, who is currently running for re-election to the board, said she supports both of the polices broadly, but has questions about the anti-racism policy. 

One criticism of the new guidelines is that they come from outside the Anchorage community. Bellamy said she and other board members did research on what other school districts have done on race and equity issues. 

Bishop, who gave input as the policies were being drafted, said it’s a benefit to learn from other districts that are further along in the process.

“It allows us to have that open mindset and come up with better answers,” Bishop said.  “More brains are better than one.”

Bellamy, the only Black person on the school board, said it’s important to distinguish equality from equity. Equality means that every student gets the same resources, regardless of need.

But, Bellamy said, student outcomes prove that hasn’t worked.  

“We tried that. It’s what led us to where we are now. What equity will do is give us the mindfulness and the intentionality to focus on what kids need,” Bellamy said. “We don’t give them the same.”

A vote on the policies is scheduled for next month, just after Anchorage’s municipal election, on April 6. 

Correction: While the vote on the policies will take place after Anchorage’s municipal election, new school board members will not be sworn in until after the vote on the policies is scheduled to place. The vote will likely be one of the final votes current school board members take before the new school board is sworn in.

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