Proposed new charter school wants to get kids outside

Addison Gibson works on her seventh-grade math homework for Kenai Middle School at her dining room table after school last week. Her family is in support of a proposed charter school.

Addison Gibson has a hard time sitting still.

When the Kenai Middle School student was younger, she would tell people her favorite part of school was recess.

Now, the 12-year-old says she does not have a favorite part of school.

“I just want to be at home,” she said.

Addison’s mother, D’Anna Gibson, along with other parents, community members and teachers spoke during the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Board of Education December meeting. Each asked the district to approve an application for the Greatland Adventure Academy.

D’Anna told board members of her nightly struggles to help Addison, a seventh-grader, complete her homework.

“I have four children; three that have fit the public school format very, very well and with Addison it has been a bigger challenge,” D’Anna said. “She has always been a very active child from the time that she could walk and movement for her engages her brain a lot better. It’s easier for her to concentrate, it kind of keeps her a bit more focused if she can have more movement in her body.”

The seven founding members of the academy put an application in to the state that included a lot of movement.

“We just see it as all of the outdoors being an extension of our classroom,” said Debbie Michael. “We will have an indoor classroom, of course, but getting the kids outside as much as we can and we’re hoping to partner with the wildlife refuge, it sounds like there’s a real open door for that.”

The school would also incorporate curriculum from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Michael pointed to a recent draft plan released by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development looking to incorporate environmental literacy into the classroom.

According to the charter school’s application, which was ultimately granted conditional approval by the school board, each day would be split into blocks of academic learning and activity.

The curriculum would include courses in hunter’s education, outdoor survival, forest ecology and other academic instruction which would align with the State of Alaska’s content standards according to its application.

Michael said each day would start out with physical activity before students dove into academics.

Addison said she benefits from sporadic bursts of activity, including the running and skiing that she does currently at her middle school.

“It just, like, clears my mind,” she said. “I just figure out everything that’s on my mind.”

Right now, she struggles with every subject because it’s hard to sit still and concentrate, she said.

“At home when I’m doing homework, I’ll do it for 20 to 30 minutes and take a small little break, eat a snack and then go onto a different subject,” she said. “I just jump on the trampoline or something.”

After bouncing around, Addison said she can sit down and tackle a subject again.

Right now, the charter school’s application plans to include seventh- and eighth-grade students, but Michael said it would ideally expand as interest grows.

After being approved by the local board of education, the charter school submitted its application to the state for consideration during the statewide Board of Education meeting in March.

Currently, no location has been found that meets all of the needs of the school and requirement of the fire code, Michael said, and the state will not approve an application without a facility.

“We’re looking for something centrally located,” she said. “Ideally it would be in the greater Soldotna area just because then we could get families from south of Soldotna, north of Soldotna and towards Kenai, but we’re open to options.”

Without a facility and without approval from the state, the charter cannot open enrollment.

“The biggest unknown there as far as the budget is our building and our facility,” she said. “I think that was the biggest question on our financing. Will we have a budget that will support whatever facility we find?”

Without knowing enrollment, Michael said, its difficult to know which specific activities the school could offer but she had a few ideas.

“Nordic skiing and snowshoes, the wildlife refuge has sets of snowshoes already, so those are two options,” she said. “Hiking, running, we hope to offer some basketball if possible, depending on gym space and where we end up. We don’t have a complete picture of what sports we can offer, but we’re thinking we can do some cross-fit type of sports because you can do those things in an open space, it doesn’t have to be a gym.”

The charter still has several hurdles to jump over before it can open its doors, Michael said, but it hopes to open in August.

“Just having the support of the district and approval was a big hurdle to get over,” she said.

For D’Anna and Addison, the new charter is appealing but may not be the best fit.

D’Anna said Addison is concerned about disrupting her social life for one year of instruction only to return to struggling once she transferred to a high school.

“If it went up to ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, she wouldn’t question it,” D’Anna said. “I kind of go back and forth with it, because I know academically it would just be so good.”

However, even if the school cannot open immediately or Addison decides not to go, D’Anna said she hopes it would still open.

“It’s just a real positive thing to see this happening,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t happen for my child, it can happen for another person’s child.”

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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