Bridget Weiss, superintendent of the Juneau School District, has had one heck of a year.
Last September, she was six months into managing a second pandemic school year and dealing with the ramifications of distance learning for a school system that serves about 5,000 people, including students, families, and faculty members.
Now, entering the third pandemic school year, she’s steering the district through in-person learning with COVID-19 mitigations in place and addressing the learning loss that students experienced over the last two years.
She’s also preparing to accept the 2022 Alaska Superintendent of the year award in Anchorage Thursday night at the Alaska Superintendent Association conference. In August, Time Magazine included her in a list of 29 people who saved the pandemic school year.
All of that is in addition to her day job of running the district— one of Juneau’s largest employers and an institution that touches almost every family in the Borough in some way.
During her tenure, she’s collaborated with local governments, tribal agencies and organizations to champion PK-12 education, student activities, and Alaska Native language revitalization.
By her own admission, it’s been a long haul. But, she says it’s a labor of love driven by a work ethic and community ethos she learned while growing up in Juneau and attending public schools.
“It’s really unusual for somebody to grow up in a place and then serve in this capacity,” she said during a Monday afternoon interview. “It’s really interesting to give back in a community when you are a product of that community.”
Juneau born and bred
Fueled by Diet Coke from a fountain and sipped through a straw, Weiss has been in the district’s top job for four years. Before taking the helm, she was the director of student services.
Her family has deep roots in Juneau. She said that her grandfather arrived in Juneau from Greece as a teenager in the early 1900s and went on to run a grocery store on Franklin Street.
Her other grandfather came in 1915 as a teen to work in the local mines. Both her parents were raised in Juneau.
“As a kid I lived in the area that we know call The Flats,” she said. “My first job was at Alaksa Laundy and Cleaners when I was 12.”
Looking back on her childhood, Weiss said she remembers the influence of local adults and the relationships formed at school and in the community.
“Adults in the community made an extraordinary investment. People meant a lot,” she said, recalling the “high-quality” community relationships that helped support her as a student.“That’s where my roots are. That’s where my core values were formed.”
Weiss said she still sees adults making investments in Juneau’s students.
“The population has doubled and things have changed. But, it’s still happening,” she said.
Weiss is among the adults who invest in Juneau’s next generation.
Students at Juneau’s schools are likely to see Weiss in the halls, opening up high school cross country and track meets, serving as a line judge at a volleyball tournament, judging the Native Youth Olympic games and speech and debate competitions.
She greeted community members as a volunteer at vaccine clinics on and off-campus last spring.
She co-chaired a communitywide task force with the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly, focused on early childhood education. The task force led to increased investment in education in the community.
Weiss assists families experiencing homelessness by serving on the board of Family Promise.
In addition, she serves on the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition Postvention Committee.
“Truly, this is my community. I want to contribute in any way I can,” she said. “When I see an opportunity to contribute, I take it. It’s what I do.”
A journey through Juneau’s schools
Today, her office looks out on Harborview Elementary School, which she attended from kindergarten to sixth grade.
She attended junior high school at Marie Drake before matriculating to then-Juneau-Douglas High School. The name of the school was officially changed to Juneau-Douglas Yadaa.at Kalé in 2019.
As a student, she played volleyball, ran track, and was a member of the National Honor Society. She participated in basketball, cheerleading and was a member of various clubs. Thanks to the local Rotary Club, she attended a leadership training program.
As a senior in high school, she decided that she didn’t want to leave a single high school stone unturned. So, she recruited a few friends and joined the cast of “South Pacific,” under the direction of Ken Koelsch — who was a teacher at the time and went on to become Juneau’s mayor.
After high school, she left town for Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, intent on becoming a teacher.
A now-retired math teacher and basketball coach, Bill Szepanski, inspired Weiss to pursue a degree in education and a teaching and coaching career.
“He always ‘saw me’ and I felt valued, supported and he always made us laugh,” she said.
She said that her time in Juneau’s schools helped her feel “really prepared” for the challenge of college and that her goal to “just be a student” quickly fell aside as she joined the volleyball and softballs teams and became a resident assistant at Whitworth.
On the day she turned 22, she started her teaching career in Spokane, where she spent 26 years as a teacher, coach and administrator.
In 2010, she stepped into the role of principal at North Pole High School in Fairbanks.
She returned to Juneau in 2014.
“My whole family is here,” she said, noting that her mother, who turns 89 soon, still lives in Juneau.
Values-based decision making
Weiss was in her second year as superintendent when the pandemic hit.
“It’s such an extraordinary experience. There is no instruction book,” she said. “We had four levels in our crisis response plans and we went through all of them in one week. That’s when you have to rely on your values and leadership skills.”
After the governor canceled school across the state on March 13, 2020, she said that the district quickly pivoted to online learning and new avenues of student support.
The governor canceled school on Friday evening and by Monday, district staff served grab-and-go meals for students.
As spring turned to summer, she said her staff worked hard to create a plan for students to return in the fall with a hybrid approach. But, rising infection numbers weighed on her mind and presented one of the more vexing decisions she’s faced.
“Last fall there was no vaccine and we didn’t know if there would be,” she said. “Staff was getting more and more fearful.”
She described a summer of “intense mulling” about the best way to balance the risks faced by opening schools.
“I woke up one Sunday morning and I knew what we needed to do. We needed to go to distance learning. I had peace of mind and heart with the decsion and it let us move the focus onto teaching.”
She said that she relied on her values — along with transparent communication — while weighing the risks and rewards associated with the hundreds of decisions that followed.
Some of those decisions proved controversial — like keeping the basketball team home from the state tournament because attending events in areas with a high degree of spread violated established district policy.
“I couldn’t put the continuity of our operations at risk,” she said of the incident.
In the ensuing months, she led the efforts to bring students back into buildings — slowly at first and building up to four days a week.
Along the way, she made decisions about activities, field trips and classroom volunteer opportunities. She worked with public health officials to set up onsite vaccine clinics and helped to direct a summer school program designed to jump-start learning loss.
As school started this fall, she’s overseen the development of a constellation of mitigation layers and strategies that have allowed in-person school to resume, five-days a week across the entire district.
She said that these days she feels optimistic and has a “huge sense of urgency” to help students recover from pandemic-based learning losses.
“There’s so much work to be done for our students.” she said.
She said that the CBJ Assembly, local tribal agencies and community groups helped make the pandemic school year work.
“I’m so proud of our staff and school board. We have put it all out there,” she said. “We supported each other really well.”
She said she’s focused on the positive and thinking about the experience creatively.
“We need to pull out the silver linings,” she said. “The pandemic impacted every child but it didn’t impact every child in the same way. We need to seize the moment and do things differently to heal and propel students forward.”
When she’s not working or volunteering in the community, Weiss enjoys running and hiking. She lists Mount Jumbo as her favorite hike and said that her dog, Abby, is always an enthusiastic hiking partner.
She has two grown sons — one who has followed in her footsteps and is a teacher and coach in Washington and one who is a helicopter pilot in Juneau.
She enjoys dining at The Island Pub on Douglas Island.