Cass Pook is Sitka’s longest, continuously-serving school board member. But she says the task she set out for herself when she joined the board 13 years ago is far from over. Pook wants Sitka students — especially Alaska Natives — to feel more welcomed and prepared to learn than when she was a student.
The municipal election in Sitka is Tuesday, October 6. Polls will be open from 7 AM to 8 PM, at their temporary locations at Grace Harbor Church and St. Gregory’s Catholic Church. Voters will choose two assembly members and two school board members. You can find profiles of all the candidates, candidate statements, and our complete candidate forums here.
Cass Pook is a graduate of Sitka High School, class of 1980. Her memories aren’t all happy ones, but they help her get this far.
“I probably why I ended up running for school board in the first place is because of my experience in school. It wasn’t all that positive. I can’t blame it all on the school. There were certainly different aspects of living in a small community that added to that. We have so many more supports now for our kids — as far as assets — than we did when I was in high school.”
Pook is Tlingit, the daughter of Pete and Bertha Karras. She has much extended family in the community. She says working with mentors in a positive learning environment helped her push through the more unbearable moments of her childhood.
“One thing that was really positive for me when I was growing up is that I started taking beading at the Park Service in the ANB/ANS wing with Esther Littlefield. And I worked with Florence Eddy, also learning beading. That’s Nancy Douglas’s mother. And so I was privileged to learn beading from elders, and my grandmother, Annie Jacobs. And that really was my safety net. I remember trying to join the Gaja Heen Dancers and I was teased and ridiculed in school for being a part of that. And I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t have the makeup emotionally to take the ridicule. It was just hard enough to… It was just hard.”
Pook has made closing the achievement gap the top priority of her thirteen years on the school board. The gap not strictly racial: There is a socio-economic gap — even a gender gap. Pook supports the idea that different student populations may have different learning styles — but closing the gap for her begins with making school a welcoming environment, and addressing head-on racism, intolerance, and bullying.
KCAW – Do you think those things have improved from when you were in school?
Pook – Yes. I think we as a community are more willing to say where we have problems rather than sweeping it under the carpet. We’re willing to say the word racism. We’re at a place where we can identify stereotype. We all deal with it whether we’re Native or non-Native.
Pook became an artist, but that career tipped her into behavioral health, when she was hired to be the artist-in-residence at the Bill Brady Healing Center. Later she became involved in outpatient behavioral health. And now for about the last 3 years she’s been a counselor at Raven’s Way, an in-patient substance abuse treatment center for youth.
She’s had five children of her own: two daughters who attended Sitka High, one daughter who went to Mt. Edgecumbe, and two sons who are currently a senior and a junior at Mt. Edgecumbe. Her husband, Stewart, is a former counselor and now associate pastor.
Pook also houses two boys from northern Alaska, who attend Sitka High. She’s got her hands full, and she’s got faith.
“I come from a Christian background. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church here. God has always been a part of my life. And I pray. I pray before I go to board meetings, that I will have wisdom and insight to make decisions, that I don’t even know where to go. I’m more of a listener. And then when I do speak, I want to get something done.”
The school board has been forced to make budget cuts the last couple of years, and more cuts are likely on the way. Pook is a strong advocate for extra-curricular programs. Going into the next budget cycle, she’d prefer to increase class sizes than lose more activities.
“I would probably advocate for increasing PTR’s before I would cut programs, because I know how vital programs are outside of core classes.”
Pook has been outspoken about developing community partnerships to help maintain programs. She doesn’t want to make decisions about cuts without significant public input. She says the community schools cut is an example of the community’s really speaking out about what it wants. The board was prepared to entirely let go of community schools, but found an alternative under private management.
This is how she wants to work.
“When there are things on the chopping block, I will be a good listener. Sometimes it ends up not being about me, it ends up being about what the community wants, and how we can work together to save what we can and say goodbye to what we have to.”
Pook has served one term on the board of directors of the Alaska Association of School Boards. If she wins re-election to the Sitka board, she says she plans to run again. She feels she’s been effective bringing Alaska Native representation to a statewide body, and carrying on a “courageous conversation” about closing the gap for all students.