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Meet the candidate: Kelly Lessens

Kelly Lessens is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.
Kelly Lessens is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.(Courtesy Kelly Lessens' campaign team)
Published: Mar. 12, 2021 at 2:43 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Kelly Lessens is running for a seat on the school board. Alaska’s News Source asked her to answer some questions about her campaign. Here’s what she said.

What school board seat are you running for?

SCHOOL BOARD SEAT B

Can you give me a short description of yourself?

I’m the parent of two elementary-aged children in ASD. Some people may know me from my advocacy with the ASD60 group and ASD’s Wellness Pilot to promote evidence-based and equitable recess and lunch times in Anchorage schools, so as to improve our student outcomes. My experiences gave me first-hand experiences in understanding how School Board leaders’ priorities have direct bearing on the policy and budgetary priorities that are laid before the administration. I learned that our School Board leaders must be willing to give direction to the administration in ways that both channel the community’s priorities and respect evidence regarding effective educational practices.

As a scholar, I value research and independent thinking. As a community advocate, I have the capacity and sensitivity to engage with our diverse community in a way that respects our community as a whole. As a parent, and as a candidate for Seat B, I promise to place our kids’ needs at the center of my decision-making efforts. I’d be honored to earn your support!

Why are you running for school board?

I care about the community we call home, and its long-term success. I’m running to improve life in Anchorage by prioritizing student wellness, equity and evidence-based learning practices in our K-12 system. I can think of no more important task than to build all students’ capacity for informed civic participation, for empathy, for critical thinking, and for creating a society in which everyone truly belongs. We must prepare children to collaborate, innovate, and apply different forms of knowledge throughout their lives. These goals depend on leaders who will advocate for equity and for excellence during children’s formative years. It requires leaders who place children’s needs at the center of our education system, who will buttress those priorities with school and community assets, and who will call for the resources required to get the job done.

What will be your focus on the school board?

When it comes to shaping policy and allocating resources, I will ask myself whether a given decision promote wellness, equity, and learning. I support priorities like the expansion of ASD’s preschool options, caps on class sizes to promote effective reading instruction, and improvements in teacher retention and recruitment. I will also promote evidence-based school start times, social-emotional learning, and ample time for project- and play-based, as well as differentiated learning.

Do you think students should be back in school, learning virtually, or a hybrid?

As the parent of elementary-aged students, I fully understand that our kids learn best in school. I think it’s important for voters to know that I’m the only person running for Seat B who has personally navigated Zoom-based learning with their young children. As a parent, I’ve seen where online learning has offered new opportunities for teachers and students, but I also recognize families’ struggles with online school, as well. I’m also the only candidate for Seat B who has publicly offered evidence-based, out-of-the-box thinking to try to get our youngest learners back into socially-distanced and “pandemic resilient” educational spaces, when possible, but also has shown deference to science and public health experts.

Although my own children have recently returned to ASD’s face-to-face model, the caveat is that only about 2/3 of the students enrolled at our neighborhood school have done so. Because of this, social distancing does not carry the same degree of concern for my family as it might for families whose children are enrolled in more crowded classrooms. I still believe that ASD needs to do more to ensure evidence-based social distancing across all of its classrooms.

The recently updated CDC guidance about school reopening echoes the importance of social distancing—and masking. The most recent guidelines recognize that school transmission is associated with community transmission. The CDC now asks schools to track the number of new cases/100,000 over past 7 days and the percent of positive tests in a region. The CDC advises that in areas with “substantial transmission rates” (more than 50-99 cases/100,000 over the previous 7 days, or between 8-9.9% positive tests), schools should be open part time to allow social distancing in cohort based models. But in places where community transmission is highest (> 100 cases/100,000 over 7 days; > 10% testing positivity) and regular testing of staff and students is not in place, elementary school buildings could remain open part-time, but middle and high schools should remain virtual.

I am not an epidemiologist, but I expect ASD to adhere to CDC guidelines as they are updated. To this end, I want ASD’s metrics to reflect the CDC’s latest updates—so that we have a common language for decision-making—and commit to the idea that returning to school should take place when community transmission is under control and is being suppressed.

Should students in school be wearing masks?

Yes. The latest statements from the CDC stress that layers of mitigation should be “strictly adhered to,” and stress that the most important layers of mitigation are masking and social distancing.

Do you think children were left behind this school year? How can they get back to grade level?

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, to address students’ needs to make gains, 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. 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 1-2 week spans), or frequent, short-duration high-intensity tutoring with very small groups of students and instructors. Moving forward into the coming academic year, I would also use Federal funds to 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) as to how they think we can use the district’s increased tech capacity (we have more Chromebooks and hotspots) 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 challenges, ASD will need to provide additional nutritional support for students, track any increases to the numbers of students who are considered homeless or in transition, and be ready to optimize virtual learning, should that need arise again.

How do you plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic in schools?

As we emerge out of this year of COVID disruptions, ASD will have hard questions to answer and big decisions to make. How do we catch all of our children up? What happens if enrollment numbers stay low? How should we allocate additional Federal funds? What happens if the state doesn’t adjust the Base Student Allocation? What sacrifices are we willing to make, and what areas are we able to transform? How can we turn this moment into a catalyst for the future? How will we prepare all of our students for the future? What kinds of long-term leadership decisions and areas of investment does ASD really need to focus on?

Given the scope of these questions, our community needs elected officials who are positive role-models, who care about all of our children, who listen well, and who use evidence and research to guide their decisions.

Here’s how I would drill down into COVID policies (separate from the need to assess and catch kids up):

  • Focus on teacher vaccines;
  • Make plans to track and respond to any prevalence of new, more transmissible variants of COVID in Anchorage;
  • Address unequal access to breathing (space class sizes) by aligning with the concept of pandemic-resilient learning spaces;
  • Produce evidence that ASD’s ventilation systems meet or exceed requirements;
  • And perhaps explore the idea of creating a chief medical officer within ASD, whose job might encompass preparations for future pandemics.

What’s the largest non-pandemic issue facing the district and what do you intend to do about it?

The framework and structure of the school day is one of ASD’s biggest issues. Does the model we are currently using promote student success as well as it could? If not, what do we know about the science of learning and about kids’ needs that we can use to make improvements? Here are some of my ideas and priorities:

  • To begin with, we need to expand the scope of public K-12 education to encompass and support preschool. To this end, I will support 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. Only 18% of our kindergarteners enter having mastered all 13 DEED competencies assessing kindergarten readiness. Meanwhile, 23% of Anchorage-area children between 0-5 are in unlicensed care facilities, and another 18% of families with children in this age-range have unmet needs for child care. 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.
  • Cap 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 meet students’ needs.
  • Support the middle school model.
  • Adjust school start times to reflect best available evidence linking later start times for high school students to increased academic performance.
  • Increase 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.
  • Increase time dedicated to inquiry, play, and project-based learning, so as to improve student engagement, creative thinking, executive function, and problem solving skills.
  • Protect time allocated to essential subjects like science and social studies, which have been shortchanged in the race to focus on more quantifiable skills.
  • Integrate social-emotional learning throughout all curricular options. In math, for instance, students can be taught to take risks when presenting their thinking, considering others’ perspectives, making and learning from their own 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 understood as a fundamental part of the school day, because it benefits all children. However, it also helps low-income children and those with high numbers of adverse childhood experiences make special gains. For ASD, that’s important.
  • Increase the time allotted for teacher professional development and collaboration, improve district-teacher communication channels, and ensure adequate staffing ratios.

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