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Meet the candidate: Rachel Blakeslee

Rachel Blakeslee is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.
Rachel Blakeslee is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.(Courtesy Rachel Blakeslee's campaign team)
Published: Mar. 12, 2021 at 3:10 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Rachel Blakeslee 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 E

Can you give me a short description of yourself?

I began my career in education a decade ago as a bilingual teacher in a Title I school. I taught in the very school district I grew up in, and yet the experiences of my students could not have been more different from my own. My time in the classroom catalyzed my lifelong commitment to fight for kids in hopes that every child will one day have the same opportunities I had. I received my masters at the University of Washington where I focused my research on school environmental health issues, an often overlooked determinant of kids’ academic and life success. I now work at a large education nonprofit supporting the movement for educational equity. I am married to a born and raised Alaskan, am the proud mom of a future ASD student, and am grateful for the opportunity to live and work on the ancestral lands of the Dena’ina.

Why are you running for school board?

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 ten 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 will be your focus on the school board?

I have four key priorities. The first is ensuring all students have access to a high-quality education. Over half of ASD’s students have lacked proficiency in key subjects like math and reading for years. With the disruptions of this pandemic, our kids are now falling further behind. Additionally, our most underserved students-- especially those who are economically disadvantaged and our students of color-- continue to suffer at a disproportionate rate compared to their peers. I will focus on ensuring all of our students have equitable access to the resources and learning opportunities they deserve so we can both get students back on track and close systemic opportunity gaps. My second priority is recruiting and retaining an excellent and diverse teaching workforce. Research shows that teacher quality is a critically important determinant of student outcomes, as is representation. I believe we have a unique opportunity and responsibility to focus on ways to increase the diversity of our teaching force as we evaluate how to grow it. To do this requires understanding what makes our teachers leave in the first place and addressing those unmet needs in order to attract and retain talent. My third priority is fostering inclusive and nurturing learning environments.Given all that our kids and teachers have endured, I will focus on ensuring they’re equipped with the supports necessary to create the safe, inclusive, and welcoming environments they deserve. My final priority is to improve ASD’s accessibility and accountability to the community by refining existing systems of communication so that they are responsive to teachers, parents, and students.

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

Currently, I am most supportive of equitable choices where parents and teachers are able to make the best decisions for their families and comfort levels. I believe that kids benefit the most from in-person learning. However, I also believe we have a responsibility to keep our kids, loved ones, and broader community safe. As we are still navigating so many uncertainties with this pandemic, I think it’s important to offer flexible instructional and learning choices that don’t leave parents and teachers fearful of the outcomes. For some, virtual learning is unsustainable. For others, in-person learning isn’t yet safe or feasible. While every member of our community has struggled and sacrificed as a result of this virus, not all of those experiences have been the same. Given where we are today with COVID-19, I think offering a variety of choices is still essential to truly and equitably meet the needs of all kids.

Should students in school be wearing masks?

As long as we are dealing with this pandemic, I believe that all students should be wearing masks, as should the rest of our community. Wearing masks and social distancing have proven to be effective strategies at reducing the spread of this virus. Until we’ve tackled COVID-19, we should help students practice both of these strategies to help protect themselves, their families, their teachers, and our broader community. While it’s not an ideal situation for any of us to be in, beating this virus and keeping each other safe will continue to require a collective effort from all of us.

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

I do, and the loss in learning is evidenced by ASD’s own data. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt our public education system, our students are only falling further behind. Not only have all kids across the district lost invaluable opportunities as a result of this pandemic, but long-standing educational opportunity gaps are actually widening. Luckily, emerging studies have given us evidence-based recommendations to help us close some of those gaps. For example, we should explore and offer more opportunities for expanded learning time (e.g., extended school-days, extended school year, structured after-school programs, weekend school, differentiated summer school). We should also invest in high-quality, 1:1 (or extremely small group) tutoring. Frequent, dedicated tutoring has been shown to have incredibly positive results on academic outcomes. While high-intensity 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. We could start by targeting students who need this level of support the most, leveraging 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.

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

While we cannot change the fact that we’re dealing with a global pandemic, we can center the diverse needs of our teachers and students as we continue to respond to it. It’s important that our students and teachers feel safe and heard. If elected, I’d prioritize ensuring our schools are set up to accommodate students in-person learning in accordance with COVID-19 safety protocols. This means ensuring learning spaces are truly equipped with enough space for effective social distancing, incorporating ample and safe mask breaks, especially for our youngest students, making sure air ventilation systems are in compliance to help mitigate the spread of the disease. I’d also fight to incorporate more fresh air time into the school day. Remote learning has forced our kids to spend extraordinary amounts of time in front of screens. Now more than ever, we should focus on offering more fresh air time for our kids who are able and comfortable returning to in-person learning. There are countless studies that show how spending time outside improves overall health, mood, behavior, and cognitive function, especially for children.

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

I think the biggest issue we’re facing is the fact that long before this pandemic hit, many of our ASD students were already behind. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, more than 50% of ASD students were scoring below or far below proficient in all key PEAKS assessment areas year after year. In order to increase student proficiency in core subjects, we cannot approach the problem in a vacuum. There are so many critical and interconnected components to a child’s education that we often neglect. If we focus solely on boosting assessment scores through an age-old approach of teaching kids how to test, we will continue to fail them. If I were elected, I’d fight for a comprehensive approach to improving student learning outcomes. This would include, but would not be limited to, 1) providing increased tailored supports that meet the diverse needs of our students, 2) equitably allocating resources so that students who need the most support receive it and opportunities to gain entry to specialized programs (e.g., charter schools, gifted programs, etc.) are accessible to all; 3) equipping students with relevant 21st century skills like digital and financial literacy that are essential for kids to succeed in today’s economy regardless of their pathway; 4) ensuring kids get more fresh air time during the school day, as it is directly linked to improved cognitive function and health; and 5) expanding the focus on social emotional learning and culturally relevant instruction so students feel safe, supported, and can see themselves in the content they’re learning.

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