Superintendent candidates interviewed

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) The three applicants for Juneau School Superintendent mingled with the public and answered questions from the Board of Education as the search for an interim school chief heated up.

    Each candidate was given 45 minutes for the interview. Questions included leadership experience, experience with science, technology, engineering and math,  opinions on budgets, working with the state legislature, how they would handle contract negotiations with employees, the importance of public trust, connection with community groups, and implementation of the district strategic plan.

    Molly Yerkes, Principal at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, has a Masters in teaching, public administration and educational leadership from the University of Alaska.  She has worked 20 years for the school system.   She is a former winner of the Millikan Educator Award.  Yerkes is also fluent in Spanish.  She has been principal at Dzantik'i Heeni since 2010.

    Yerkes said she is a product of Juneau Schools which inspired her to be an educator.  "I love teaching.  As a teacher I became frustrated in how resources were distributed in our school.  I got tired of myself whine and complain."

    She became committed to change and bettered herself by going to college at night to earn her Master's degrees.  "I think we accomplished amazing things at DZ, we have an incredible staff, it was not about me but about we."  She said her ability to create a strong team, the time she spends in the classroom, her willingness to support programs for students like an after school robotics class, and her willingness to work with the legislature on forward funding of education, would suit her well in the position.

    Yerkes said she has a unique perspective on negotiations as both of her parents are former Juneau teachers.  "I've worked really hard to stay close to the classroom.  I would love to be a communication conduit between the boards and the schools.  I can really help with listening and respectful communication and building a team atmosphere."

    Yerkes has visited 51 countries.  She listed pre kindergarten education, retention of staff, development or inclusive curriculum, dual enrollment courses, stronger relationships with trade unions, pursuit of grants, and inspiring more students to become teachers, as other priorities.

    "What I bring to the table is supporting teams that can get results.  Welcoming students, being in classrooms, being knowledgeable, and creating a safe place for communication, as a Superintendent I would hope to build those same kinds of relationships at the district level."

    She would like to celebrate the success the districts have and to recognize amazing staff members and students.  "We need to focus on growth and improvement but taking the time to celebrate what we are doing well is very important."

    Daniel Larson was hired as Principal at Thunder Mountain High School in 2010.  He previously served as Principal at two schools in Nebraska.  His administrative experience dates back to 1991.  He is also President of the Juneau Schools Administrator Association.  He holds a Master of Science in Education degree from Creighton University, and a Specialization in Education Administration and Supervision from the University of Nebraska.

    Larson said his strengths are team building and consensus building.  Another emphasis was on creation of trust with staff.  He listed the creation of more AP classes and having a 100 percent graduation rate for native students, as two of his big accomplishments at Thunder Mountain.  Larson said he also works hard on budgets and controlling costs.  They also have 929 electronic devices for 700 kids because the school was able to control spending.

    He admitted he had work to do to learn the budget process.  He has spent time learning contract negotiations.

    "Were at full staff and its been a relaxing summer.  Last year we didn't know, we had a hiring freeze, and we hired six teachers.  Without forward education funding and knowing your budget... its hard." 

    "I've been making a living solving problems for decades.  It is what I do.  Problems come in all shapes and sizes.  As a team, we call a timeout, huddle up and get a plan," he added.

    On the question of creating trust with the public Larson said doing your homework, letting voices be heard,  to have genuine respect and dignity, and being available and present, will lead to respect that you are engaged and taking ownership to the degree you need to from the public  "Sometimes were wrong, sometimes were not, sometimes were in the middle.  Its like real estate, location, location, location, in problem solving its communication, communication and communication."

    Larson said if somebody tries to divide and conquer the team, we get back to the team, get the information, and get back to them. "I take a lot of pride and professional satisfaction when you hit the point that consensus and solution has been reached to the point people are satisfied."

    Larson also mentioned the value of volunteering in the community.  "This is a lifestyle for me, its not a job, and I'm passionate about it.  Beyond what is funded is our passion and persistence.  There is plenty of that in Juneau, Alaska."

    The importance of elementary school coaches, improvement to pre kindergarten programs, and keeping small class sizes from kindergarten to 2nd grade were other issues he addressed.   He also spoke on the value of Saturday school at TMHS.

    Larson said he is very proud of the school system.  "Our backs are against the wall right now.  I'm willing to help in this position or my current position.  I'm there to be part of the solution and we have work to do."

    Bridget Weiss, Director of Student Services, holds a Doctorate of Education and Educational Leadership from Washington State University.  She also holds a Master of Education and Mathematics from Eastern Washington University.  She was hired in Juneau in 2014 and is responsible for a $21 million budget.  She also has served as Principal at North Pole High School in Fairbanks, South Dakota for five years, Principal at Lake Spokane Elementary and was an Interim Superintendent at Nine Mile Falls School District in South Dakota in 2007-2008.

    Weiss said she was born and raised in Juneau and was put in leadership positions early in her career. She said that would be her goal for young people in school,  "Provide opportunity in context with what they do, how they are learning and put students in leadership roles."

    She mentioned her 16 years in the classroom, building consensus among colleagues on curriculum, and her administrative jobs at elementary, middle school and high school.  "So many needs don't show up at your door step or at your desk.  Older kids hide behind facades, and don't present the needs.  At elementary, those needs just show up."

    She also emphasized communication among staff, work with the state Board of Education, ties to the native community, and the ongoing budget woes.

    "When resources are thin, process, communication, understanding of goals and our strategic plan become more exaggerated.  In a land of plenty we don't make as many hard decisions.  We have to be clear about our core values in these times, what are our initiatives and how do we prioritize.  We don't have a lot of good answers because we are going to be short."

    She said the district needs to be proactive, and plan ahead, and use funds efficiently.  She also praised the school board for a strong strategic plan.

    Weiss said she enjoys contract negotiations.  "Negotiations are a great opportunity to work elbow to elbow, and discuss the ways that we can be better together and what it takes to do that.  We spend energy working in context or working in the other direction."

    She called contract negotiations a great learning experience.  Weiss also emphasized communications with parents to explain decisions that impact students.  She said Juneau schools can get to another level of learning.

    Weiss said Juneau has done a good job in improving science scores.  "We met or exceed every state standard at every level tested. We have great growth in the past year."

    She said third to fourth graders had an 11 point gain in reading scores this year.  "That should give energy.  That should be the shot in the arm as a teacher than I need."

    Being inspired, creative, and reaching further to meet kids needs were other priorities she mentioned during the interview.  She also mentioned the importance of kindergarten readiness. "We have students on third base ready to roll and we have kids still in the dugout, they aren't even on deck yet.  Our job is to get them all the way around.  We don't have the resources to get kids in the dugout caught up if we don't start early."

    She also spoke about teamwork, genuine conversations about needs in the district, determination of staff needs and support, and passion in education.  "This is my community it always has been.  I think my time away from Juneau schools have been super valuable.  I want to be hired because I'm super committed to our students and our families.  I believe I have the skills to lead, mentor, model, communicate, and move us forward."

    President of the Board Brian Holst said all three candidates were really talented and the district was fortunate to have three great people to choose from.  The Board went into Executive Session after the interviews to discuss the interim position.  He anticipated a decision on the position will be made next week.


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