School board candidates Cass Pook and Jennifer Robinson answered listener questions in our studio on Wednesday night. Pook has been on the school board since 2002. Robinson is running as a write-in candidate. There are two seats, so the race is not competitive.

Listen below to the forum.

Part 1: Bomb threats, technology spending, math education and the Mt. Edgecumbe H.S. pool.

Part 2: Student achievement, early childhood education, state funding, difficult conversations, activity-related absenteeism and a final pitch.

A good portion of the discussion focused on two topics: technology and student achievement.

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The Sitka School District has prioritized adding tech to classrooms, but also has taken some criticism from the public on whether technology is the best place to spend money.

One listener had a question about Promethean boards – big, digital interactive displays purchased for the district’s 100 or so classroom teachers. They run about $3,500 a piece. The listener worried that they’d just become glorified dry-erase boards, and wondered if the district’s tech money could have been better spent on other things.

“At the time, no,” said Cass Pook. “That’s what we had money for. We did consider laptops, 1-to-1, but the cost was even greater than the Promethean boards.”

Pook said there’s a good reason the school district has placed a premium on technology in the classroom.

“This is not just the way the Sitka School District is going. This is the way the state of Alaska is going. This is going to go before the legislature and the governor on how we’re going to prepare our kids with technology,” she said. “It’s not my world. I’m not comfortable with it, let alone understand a lot of it. But it is our kids world, and the way they learn. I think it’s just the way we’re going, whether we’re comfortable with it or not.”

Robinson agreed with that, and said there are ways to make sure the Promethean boards stay relevant.

“It is vital that, as we roll out this new technology in our classrooms, that we’re providing our teachers with the training they need to use it effectively, so that the investment is not a waste,” Robinson said.

When the district was preparing its budget last spring, it faced questions in public hearings about whether technology spending was worthwhile in general. People wanted to know if the money being spent on tech could be better spent elsewhere. Robinson said she understands those concerns.

“There is a balance,” she said. “And there are many areas of a well-rounded education that should not, or cannot, be replaced by technology. And I think teachers are the highest.”

The candidates also talked about student achievement. Test results and other data has shown – in Sitka and statewide – that there are gaps in how different groups of students achieve. That’s often true of Alaska Native students and students from low-income households.

Pook says the issue needs to be addressed head-on.

“And I think the time is now to have those conversations,” she said. “Until we hear from students who are failing in school, and parents, and why they can’t help their kids at home – that’s where we’re going to get the answers to ‘How can we create safety nets to support your child, to help them to achieve,’ and not wait until the eleventh hour to say ‘Oh my gosh, your kid’s failing,’ and it’s a month away from graduation.”

Pook says the community needs to have what she calls “courageous conversations” about difficult issues. Robinson says one of those conversations is will have to be about parent involvement in education.

“I know how difficult it can be. I’m a single mother, and I work, and it can be challenging sometimes to be able to be all that you need to be for your kids,” Robinson said. “But it has to be a priority, no matter how hard it is.”

She says there are lots of ways to deal with students who struggle to achieve. One of those ways, she says, is by addressing their needs as soon as possible.

“One important thing to look at is that statistics have shown when a child is behind academically, if it’s not remediated in the first three years of their education, chances are that gap will never be fully bridged,” she said. “It’s just another reason that, especially in the demographics that are at risk, that they need to have some sort of an introduction to pre-K education.”