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Candidate profiles: Meet the candidates running for Anchorage School Board Seat B

Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 4:59 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage voters have four candidates to choose from to fill Anchorage School Board Seat B.

Kelly Lessens filed to run for the school board on Jan. 15. She is a mom of two Anchorage School District (ASD) students, a classroom and Parent-Teacher Association volunteer, and a cofounder of ASD60, a parent advocacy group.

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)

Judy Eledge filed to run on Jan. 22 and is an educator who worked as an ASD teacher for 16 years. She retired as a rural principal in 2003, and last year accepted a job as Alaska’s Reading Council coordinator.

Judy Eledge is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.
Judy Eledge is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.(Courtesy Judy Eledge's campaign team)

Mark Anthony Cox filed to run on Jan. 27. Having attended Bartlett High School, he is a product of ASD. He also served in the U.S. Army and is now the CEO of Family Charity of Alaska, a local nonprofit organization.

Mark Anthony Cox is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.
Mark Anthony Cox is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.(Courtesy Mark Anthony Cox's campaign team)

Marilyn Stewart also filed to run on Jan. 27. She served in the U.S. Army and was stationed at JBER in 1981. Since then, she’s worked as a public servant in state and local government. She currently has two grandchildren attending ASD schools.

Marilyn Stewart is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.
Marilyn Stewart is running for a seat on the school board in this year's municipal election.(Courtesy Marilyn Stewart's campaign team)

Each candidate’s unique experiences intersect with education, and all four of them have ideas about how to move the school district forward.

During interviews with Alaska’s News Source, the candidates shared their thoughts on how ASD should help students who fell behind during the pandemic get back to grade level.

“We’re going to have to work closely with the teachers,” Stewart said. “We’re going to have to give the teachers the tools that they need in order to help them help the students.”

Stewart noted that every student’s home and family life is unique, but for everyone, they are factors that contribute to how well a student might have fared with online learning.

“There are so many factors that play into it,” she said, “and that’s why I say that, when we start addressing these issues, how students are falling behind, let’s let our teachers take the lead in that and give them the tools that they need to bring John or Mary up to par.”

Cox pointed to class sizes as a contributing factor in students’ ability to learn.

“What I believe from my experience of learning both in the high school environment and secondary learning, smaller groups do work,” he said.

Learning through a screen presents challenges, he said, just as returning to a classroom, possibly with a new teacher or new peers, requires another adjustment.

“What I believe is small groups, and therefore smaller groups is more engagement from the teachers, but when wouldn’t we love just a higher quality environment for our students,” said Cox, “because at the end of the day, especially for the school board, our constituents, our people that we care for most, are the students.”

The task of bringing students up to grade level could be accomplished using additional federal funds headed to ASD, Lessens suggested during the February interview, prior to the Alaska State Department of Education and Early Development issuing guidance for allocating the funds.

“I could imagine that having additional summer school options — that would take money — that would be a good use of money,” she said.

Lessens also noted that the pandemic presented an opportunity for ASD to find new ways to teach, and she believes educators can rethink the traditional school day.

“We can do more in dynamic in-person sessions if additional kinds of technological capacities are now built-in,” said Lessens, pointing to almost one-to-one technology capabilities ASD now has with Chromebooks. “This didn’t exist before COVID. I would be curious to know what other teachers, in particular, think, you know, what are their ideas for really shifting that needle and getting kids back up to speed.”

Eledge said moving students to the next grade level, if they’ve fallen behind, will only set them up to be unsuccessful.

“I’m not one that believes you promote children if they’re behind if they can learn, it doesn’t do any good, they just are behind the rest of their lives,” she said.

An aggressive summer school could be the solution, Eledge said.

“I believe we could have a really intense summer school to get these kids back up,” she said. “It’s surprising, if it’s really an intense summer school and you’re really doing what you should, how quickly you could.”

Each candidate also discussed the biggest issues they believe face ASD, outside of the pandemic.

“Management,” said Cox. “Not necessarily the people, but the management of funds. We receive over half a million dollars in funding, and we serve a population of just over 40,000 children. As of right now, the average cost is $12,000 per student, so, let us spend in places that work effectively. Let us open the accessibility for students to be challenged and have those higher caliber learning styles and be exposed to things that just stimulate them more.”

Lessens said she’s focused on the relationship between the school district and the community it serves.

“There’s a whole concatenation of issues that I feel like are really layered on top of each other,” said Lessens. “I think that we need to really restore trust within the district. I think we need to restore trust between the district and the school, we’re sort of a community, so that’s a communication issue.”

Eledge said she’s concerned about addressing reading challenges among students.

“Only 40% of ASD students are reading at grade level, that means 60 are not,” she said. “To me, being a reading person, to me, that is the biggest issue and I don’t hear that discussed. That is a lot.”

Stewart said as someone who grew up in the South, she’s interested in representing diversity.

“We have one of the most diverse school districts, and believe it or not, good or bad, our students look to mimic someone who looks like us,” said Stewart. “And so, we need to see from the teachers to the workers, to the senior leadership, we need to be able to see the inclusiveness of diversity throughout our school district.”

Each candidate expanded on their views in Candidate Q&A’s with Alaska’s News Source:

Editor’s Note: Additional information has been added to this report to provide context for one of Lessens’ statements regarding federal funding that was not available at the time of the candidates’ February interviews.

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