Bridget Weiss discusses her 39-year career in public education on Thursday, her second-to-last day as superintendent of the Juneau School District, in a break room at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Bridget Weiss discusses her 39-year career in public education on Thursday, her second-to-last day as superintendent of the Juneau School District, in a break room at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Wise last lessons from Weiss

Former superintendent looks back at 39-year K-12 career, ahead to new job inspiring future teachers.

Bridget Weiss’ last day as superintendent of the Juneau School District was June 30, a “graduation” of sorts after a 39-year career in the K-12 public school system as an educator and administrator.

This week she will begin a new job as the first-ever liaison for the University of Alaska College of Education Consortium, a collaborative effort between various university programs and the state’s public school system seeking to, among other things, lure more high schoolers to become teachers and pursue careers in Alaska.

Weiss’ successor as Juneau’s superintendent is Frank Hauser, who has more than 25 years of experience in public education in the state, including most recently serving as superintendent of the Sitka School District.

On Thursday the Juneau Empire conducted an hour-long “exit interview” with Weiss, who grew up in Juneau before attending college and then working for 26 years as an educator in Washington state. She returned to Alaska and spent four years as the principal of North Pole High School before becoming the director of student services for the Juneau School District in 2014 and then superintendent in 2018.

Much of Weiss’ time as Juneau superintendent was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with her actions resulting in being one of 29 educators nationwide recognized by Time magazine in 2021 and being named Superintendent of the Year in 2022 by the Alaska Superintendents Association.

The following are excerpts of the interview edited for length, clarity and to provide explanatory details where necessary.

Q: You’ve got a day and a half left as superintendent. What do you still need to achieve? What are your goals?

A: “It’s just been so busy up to right this moment. We just finished (Extended School Year) today, which is our extended summer school…And so it’s been really busy. I will spend a little time at ESY this afternoon and then a little more time with Frank, our new superintendent. I’ve been working with him for a couple of weeks, orienting him and sharing what information I can before I walk out the doors. And also our new director of student services, because this year I have filled both of those roles.”

Q: You officially start a new job July 1, the day after this one ends. Will you actually be showing up for work that day?

A: “Well July 1 happens to be a Saturday. So I hope that I am getting my Saturday morning run in and spending a little time with family. But I have already spent time setting up my office and I have an office at (the University of Alaska Southeast) that they carved out for me. And so I’ve obviously had to clear out my offices here. And so I’ve already begun settling into my new office out there. So I may do some of that over the weekend and just be really ready to go next week.”

Q: What are the challenges, things you hope to achieve and initial plans at your new job?

A: “I know K-12 systems inside and out. What I don’t know as well are the higher ed systems inside and out. So one of my first opportunities will be just to really listen and learn from people about how higher ed sees their role in our state, in particular in the area of education…What can we do to inspire kids earlier to become teachers? Can we increase dual enrollment? Can we make those (so that) kids in high school earning college credit also counts for high school credit?”

Q: How do you see the new superintendent’s job being the same and being different compared to when you took over as superintendent?

A: “Well, I think that really comes down to pre-pandemic, and post-pandemic. And as a result of that there are learning challenges that we’re still overcoming. Our summer school this year is very robust, we’re doing a much different approach during the summer to try to continue to support students who need it. We have students that are still showing up at age six and seven years old that have never been in school, and many didn’t go to daycare for a couple of years. And so there really is a difference in some of our needs across the board that have intensified since even five years ago when I started this job…But the work itself, it will also be similar. We have a strategic plan — he will work to support the board and carry out that strategic plan. There’s certainly some big turnover (in staff), so he has an opportunity to start his team and build that. And every superintendent is their own person, so he’ll also get to sort of work his way through his leadership and what he has to offer.”

Q: What do you think should be part of the strategic plan the board adopts?

A: “Certainly academics. So what are we doing to increase the number of students who are reading at grade level by grade three, which includes implementation of the Alaska Reads Act? The district is going to be implementing that in August for the first time. There are a lot of regulations around that act.”

Q: To meet goals you need policy and financial support from policymakers. How would you describe the level of support at the local level?

A: “I think that there’s a lot of support in Juneau. I think that in Alaska in particular there is this higher level of collaboration between a city’s local Assembly and the school district than exists in some other states. The fact that in Juneau the city and borough own our facilities, and we run those buildings and facilitate the use of those buildings, creates a very strong relationship connection that doesn’t exist in other places…I think parents in general are super supportive of our work. We have so many volunteers, we have lots of partnerships with our tribal agencies, with other businesses in the community that help us with running kids programs. I think that’s really what contributes to the quality of education that kids get, which is more than a test score.”

Q: How about the level of support at the state level?

A: “I feel as superintendents we really have a front row seat at the table and our legislators listen. They seek information. They invite us to share information and allow us to advocate regularly. And we have a lot of support there. (But) we don’t have enough support there. You saw that this year through the session: hard conversations, some really positive conversations and some more challenging conversations.…We have to figure out as a state how we can financially support education in a way that reduces the distraction. All that time that we spend advocating is time away from our district where we need to be as leaders to do the work year after year. When we start building a budget next year we’re going to go through another session of not knowing what our revenue is going to be.”

Q: During your time as superintendent there’s been “uh-oh” moments such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the flooding of Riverbend Elementary School (since renamed to Kaxdigoowu Héen Elementary School), the so-called “milk incident” where kids were mistakenly served floor sealant, among others. Which of those do you feel were handled well and which do you feel are the ones to learn something from?

A: “I would say that really, every time you have an ‘uh-oh’ moment you learn something. I’ve done so much crisis response in my career. And really every time you learn something, every scenario is a little bit different. And what you can never do is undo that. And that sometimes is what people want.”

“I think that we have responded well. The flood is a perfect example when I walked in on that Monday morning and saw inches of water in two-thirds of that school. And so I really thought to myself ‘we’re not going to be bringing kids into this right away? And what are we going to do about that?’ That’s just literally where my brain went immediately. So after carting boxes of things out of classrooms, alongside maintenance to get them to the drier part of the building, my mind just kept churning around: what are we going to do? And of course this was post-COVID. So the first real suggestion I got was ‘we know how to do this, let’s do distance learning.’”

“I said after everything we’ve been through with COVID we need to keep pushing and look for other options. And so once Chapel By The Lake came up as an option it was amazing. And so much work went into making that happen. Finding the place was one thing, but really getting it up and running and equipped. And then bus routes changed and all of that. To be really having kids in school two weeks later, I think, was really incredible. So that’s just an example, where never in my career have I relocated in elementary school in the middle of the year. For that there’s no checklist, you have to start with a blank piece of paper, and look at breaking it down in pieces and chunks.”

“The same thing with the floor sealant, there’s not a script for that. It’s what happened — how did it happen? Who needs what communication? And you just take it as a problem-solving event.”

“COVID was extraordinary, of course, in and of itself. And I’m super proud of what we were able to do and do quickly when that pandemic hit.”

Q: If you had an “undo” button, what times would you have gone down different paths?

A: “There are certainly things that I wish circumstances would have been different so that I could make different decisions…(At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic) we had the governor close schools Friday at six o’clock at night. On Monday morning we were serving meals to all of our families and we had Chromebooks handed out that morning…(Before that) we could never have imagined our schools being closed for more than a week, let alone for months at a time…But really, we had two-and-a-half to three significant years of adapting.”

“I have some regret that some of the tools that we learned during that time haven’t stuck, and we’re not a little more innovative and creative with our delivery of instruction. I wish that more of that had stuck. I did a public forum in August of 2020 via Zoom to explain what we were doing as a school district, and why, with over 1,000 people. That’s extraordinary — superintendents don’t do that normally, right? I presented what our plans were, why they were that way, what our safety precautions were…That was something that I could never have predicted, obviously, that I wouldn’t have to do and it really used every skill set I had around critical thinking skills, communication skills, problem solving, troubleshooting, for really quite an extraordinary length of time.”

Q: So if this is your last day of class, so to speak, what’s your final lesson?

A: “I think one is be open to each other’s way of thinking. Take care of each other. inspire each other to find ways to say ‘yes’ when a ‘no’ might be easier. And sometimes that means finding new ways of ‘yes.’ But really looking at possibilities rather than obstacles…And overcoming those is one way to overcome obstacles and there’s so much potential in this district. And I will be a community member cheering from the side for the rest of my life.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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