New Anchorage Schools Superintendent Faces Bus Driver Shortage, Low Enrollment As School Year Begins
School is back statewide, and it was the first day of school Thursday for Alaska’s largest school district, Anchorage.
And, this year, Anchorage has a new superintendent.
Jharrett Bryantt begins his term with a shortage of bus drivers leading to a reduction in bus service – a crisis, as Bryantt calls it – as well as other staffing issues and safety concerns felt nationwide in the aftermath of one of the deadliest school shootings in US history near the end of last school year in Uvalde, Texas.
As school begins in Anchorage, Bryantt says there are short-term and long-term plans to address these issues.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jharrett Bryant: There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to bus driver staffing. We have about 55 people lining up to start driving ASD buses by the end of September. And we hope that number will continue to grow. Recently we had about 70 vacancies. So, little by little, we will be able to start having conversations around, what does the restoration of full bus service look like in the coming months?
Casey’s Grove: Speaking of which, I guess ASD is also facing a teacher shortage, like many places. In your previous role in Texas, you worked on teacher recruitment and retention, right? So were their tactics from that past job that you think will work here in Anchorage?
J.B.: There are. So in my previous role, I led talent. So my work focused on evaluating, recruiting, retaining, compensating the 26,000 employees in my previous position. There are a lot of the same challenges here, and there are a lot of things that we haven’t tried here at ASD that I think we can. For example, I noticed this summer that we had vacancies in special education. We were therefore able to provide additional compensation to this specific subgroup of special education teachers. And it’s new. Giving extra pay in Alaska to a very specific part of a bargaining unit is not very common, and I think it’s a step in the right direction.
From my side, however, something I’m excited about would be around the retention of being an ASD employee. I really want people to come to ASD and have long, fulfilling careers here. So I’m thinking of teachers, and there are unfortunate realities around politics in Alaska that prevent some of our teachers here from getting defined benefits, a path to retirement, a long-term retirement plan, which doesn’t is not common in many states. . So unless we act at the district and policy level, we are well on our way to being a revolving door of educators. And that’s not what I want. For our current teachers, (I) think, where do they get their energy? If you want to be the best teacher in town and in the Pacific Northwest, what can I do to train you? Maybe getting certified on the national board, maybe giving you opportunities to coach your peers or be a department head, to lead your teams. It’s the kind of stuff I’m really proud of that we did in Houston that made people feel like “ASD is watching over me. ASD wants me here for my career. And they watch over me, not just for my needs today, but for needs that I might not even know I have four or five years from now. So I really hope to create a stronger talent lifecycle when it comes to our employees. In fact, attracting and retaining talent is one of my top three priorities as superintendent.
CG: Talent life cycle. I have never heard this sentence.
J.B.: It’s true. That’s my HR jargon for you.
CG: Some of that, to me, sounds more like politics and maybe higher level stuff. But when you interact directly with teachers, what kind of things do you talk about to try to, you know, build support or build trust with them?
J.B.: I want to understand what a day looks like in their shoes. What are the things they think about? What does support look like? So, for example, I was able to welcome hundreds of new teachers to ASD for the first time a few weeks ago. They are so excited, their optimism and enthusiasm are at their highest. And we designed a few days for them to really talk about what new teachers are going through or someone new to ASD. And we have to target that. And I think there are things we can do to get experienced teachers to really target their needs. This is the direction I want to take with all of our groups in one way or another, including our directors. We therefore need to ensure that their professional development is continuous and relevant to what they think. And that’s not gonna happen unless I go over there, and I’m like, ‘Hey, like, what are you thinking? What do you need help with? How do you want to become better? Do you think you have all the tools in your toolbox to succeed? What keeps you up at night? And that way, as a leadership team, we can take action that helps address this problem at a system level.
CG: You mentioned talking to teachers and principals about things that keep them up at night. And I know teachers, and I know parents, and one of the things that keeps them up at night is worrying about school violence or a school shooting. And I hate to talk about it, but I just wonder what you guys think? What does ASD do to prevent a situation like this?
J.B.: Safety is at the forefront of my mind. I’m from Texas. I have been to Uvalde, TX and I know it is very scary to be in an event where the safety of our staff and students is at risk. There are many things the school district can do to help increase this. I notice a lot of gaps in our infrastructure. I was at Denali Montessori (elementary) today which is actually a model for what I want for all of our schools. We had an event at Denali Montessori not too long ago where it could have had a terrible situation, could have escalated and entered our schools, and a security vestibule prevented someone involved in an altercation from enter this school. An emergency button was pressed allowing police to be deployed to the school within two minutes. This is something I want for every school. And we need to get the community to stand behind us to make those infrastructure investments. It might look like an obligation. It might look like state-level advocacy. But we must do everything we can to restore this infrastructure as quickly as possible. I am alarmed.
CG: Let’s talk about registration. I guess enrollment has been down in the Anchorage school district for a few years. And the idea is that the children go to private school or at home. What do you think of that? And what can the school district do to encourage students to enroll in the district?
J.B.: So you’re absolutely right, these registrations have been declining for six years. ASD enrollment went from around 48,000 to around 43,000. And we’ve been kind of flat since then. As for families choosing different options, that would be a bit more anecdotal. I will say that homeschooling has become more popular during the pandemic, but I will say that we have a number of homeschooling programs here at TSA. So a number of our students simply change schools. This would not affect our number of registrations. Sometimes I will say that there are a few thousand students enrolled in statewide correspondence programs who are not ASD. It’s a lever. I wouldn’t say that’s the only reason our enrollment is dropping. I think you have to take demographic changes into account. Guess who’s leaving? Those aged 31 to 42 are the most likely to have a family. And one of my managers, a superintendent, when I heard that, you know, they asked, “What do millennials look for when they choose a city?” just as I chose this great city. They are looking for great schools and great neighborhoods. So it’s really my responsibility as superintendent is to make sure that we have a world-class education that is compelling for families that have kids to move here. I want people with kids to move here because they know, “Wow, well, if I go to this great state, not only do I have this amazing outdoor experience and an awesome neighborhood that I can move, but I have a fantastic school that will prepare my children for university life and beyond.
CG: Does this kind of get towards the results? I mean, I’m sure every school administrator would like test scores to be higher. But is that part of, I mean, showing that you can provide that education?
J.B.: The test scores are part of that, but it’s also the full experience. We have a lot going for us in ASD. We offer so many compelling education options. I was just in a Montessori school this morning. We have a few international baccalaureate programs. We have immersion programs. Many people may not even know that we have the extent of these offers. So some of this is just marketing, even for people who live in the state who might not know, “Wow, like, there’s a lot of great opportunities here in Anchorage.” And I know a lot of my colleagues, who are leaders in the city, are also wondering, “Yeah, how can we really look for opportunities that will contribute to a great economy.” Let’s think about jobs and think about attracting new employers to Anchorage. For example, how do we really set ourselves up to be that destination city that people envision when looking to relocate? The same goes for people fresh out of college or ready to make a life change. For example, how can we really put this on the radar as a great place for people to come here, have kids here, and really grow when we sign up. So it’s not just this internal battle between families choosing options locally. Is it also that big picture of how we position Alaska to be known as the great state that it is for everyone?