Schools to talk about change

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has recommended a plan for restructuring Soldotna-area schools in an effort to address declining enrollment.

While no decisions have been finalized, district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said the school district would be promoting a reconfiguration of the schools into six kindergarten through sixth-grade elementary schools, two seventh- through ninth-grade middle schools and one 10th- through 12th-grade high school.

The final structure of the schools has yet to be determined, but Erkeneff said the current reconfiguration plan was designed to minimize transition times for students between schools.

Each affected community school will have a community meeting on the reconfiguration Feb. 11 before the district administration presents its final recommendation to the Board of Education during a March work session, Erkeneff said.

Currently, the Soldotna area has six elementary schools that feed into one middle school. Students then are split into two high schools. Both Soldotna High School and Skyview High School are operating at less than 60 percent capacity according to district enrollment figures. Skyview’s enrollment projections in FY14 and FY15 are projected to drop to 54 percent while Soldotna High School is projected to reach 60 percent.

Erkeneff said enrollment has been declining at Skyview for several years.

“If we do nothing, in approximately three years we would have to close the school,” she said.

As enrollment levels drop so do course offerings and staffing at the affected schools.

Soldotna Elementary and Sterling Elementary began independently looking at reconfiguration of their schools which kick-started the conversation, Erkeneff said.

Ten elementary schools, Kalifornsky Beach, Redoubt, Soldotna Elementary, Soldotna Montessori, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary, as well as Soldotna Middle School, Soldotna High School, Skyview High School and the River City Academy have been included in the discussions.

“We worked through all sorts of scenarios, looked at enrollment, looked at equity ... we looked at the current buildings we have, there’s no funding to build new schools,” Erkeneff said. “None of the schools are going to look the same as they do now, there’s a lot of work to do.”

Part of that work involves getting input from the community.

“We did a focus group with elementary-age teachers because we’re listening and looking at elementary age students that are, in coming years, going to be attending high schools,” Erkeneff said. “We met with representatives, with parents from each of the ten schools, with community members (and) business owners.”

The district also a schools survey for ten days in September.

Of the 989 completed surveys, 62 percent of those who responded were parents or guardians, 28 percent were students and 15 percent were district employees.

More than 65% percent responded that the current configuration of schools in Soldotna needed to be changed, however opinions differed on how it should be done; several recommended a career and technical high school and one traditional high school in their comments.

Others commented that they did not like seeing students split up into two high schools after attending the same middle school.

Erkeneff said the administrators who designed the survey realized they may have not released enough information to the public before polling them.

“We didn’t prep people well enough for what we wanted to know,” she said. “It might have been more helpful to tell people some more background.”

While the school district had not planned to make any changes until the fall of 2015, Erkeneff said the two focus groups used to help the administration with its recommendations had suggested changing the school structure by the fall of 2014.

Either way, Erkeneff said the idea was to tackle the issue before it became an emergency.

“We’re being proactive so we don’t have to be reactive in a couple of years,” she said.

 Editor's Note: This story has been edited to reflect the correct percentage of survey respondents who said they supported a change in configuration of Soldotna's schools. 

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

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