Community discusses Soldotna area school reconfiguration

Focusing the conversation

Skyview High School principal Randy Neill set aside his love of purple and panthers Monday to advocate for one unified high school in Soldotna.

 

Nearly 80 community members, students, teachers, parents and school administration officials gathered in the Skyview library to talk about a school restructuring plan and, at times, the discussion grew contentious as people voiced their concerns or support for the elimination of the Skyview tradition.

“I feel like I’m caught in between. You want what’s best for your kids here and what’s best for your kids here is to graduate with Skyview,” Neill said. “But you realize what’s best for the community and with declining enrollment you’re cutting programs every year, you know if you bring the two schools together ... you can offer a lot better programs, a lot better future for our incoming kids.”

Currently, the district is promoting a reconfiguration of Soldotna area schools into six kindergarten-through-sixth-grade elementary schools, two seventh-though-ninth-grade middle schools and one tenth-through-12th-grade high school. Community meetings to collect input also were held at each of the other schools affected.

While the final structure of the schools has yet to be determined, the community gathered to primarily discuss the merits of the proposed reconfiguration.

Several people said they were concerned with divisions between the two schools and how the community has been torn between allegiance to two high schools.

Ken Tarbox, former site council president in the school district, said he remembered Skyview’s opening being controversial.

“I remember two years after this school opened, we had hundreds of parents over at SoHi that were wanting to close this school,” Tarbox said. “What’s bad about that — when you talk about community fractions — that started before this school even opened. This school has been under the gun from day one.”

Tarbox said he believed community divisions were among parents, not students.

“I really kind of object to the idea that we have to unify the community,” he said. “It’s really important for adults to set the model here about bringing a community together and the students do much better than the adults do. Students get along much better between the two schools than the adults.”

Combining the two schools, Tarbox said, would not necessarily heal community divisions.

“I think it’s a really bad reason to say we’re bringing schools together,” he said. “I think high school genocide is not the way to do that and that’s what happens when you say that ‘we’re going to kill this school off so the community can feel good.’ Trust me, that’s not the way to solve that problem. The way to solve it is for adults to be adults.”

Tarbox said he also had not seen the district come forward with metrics on student achievement between the two schools and what would happen if high school student bodies were combined.

“I think that’s important to get across to the community because if you’re going to bring two schools together the metrics have got to show that it’s going to be a benefit, or at least you’re solving a problem ... I’d like to look at decisions relative to their impact on kids, not on these other kinds of esoteric values you’ve been throwing out there.”

Darren Jones, Skyview teacher and parent, agreed with Tarbox that the social problems between the two schools were more between parents than students.

“I think we’ve had, depending on where you live and where your kids go to school, you’ve had to choose what side of the fence you’re on,” Jones said. “Without any question the hardest is going to be on the parents and teachers. I think it’s going to be a lot easier on these kids to go back and be in class with the kids that they grew up with.”

Jones, who has taught at Skyview since it opened, told the group he was passionate about saving Skyview, but came to the realization that what he wanted was not necessarily best for the kids.

“I’ve had about two years of thinking about this every day because 19 years of my career is here, my kids are all invested. I have more purple clothes than you can imagine. So I was probably one of the biggest advocates of keeping Skyview exactly the way it is, improving every year like we have, but I’ve finally come to the conclusion that if we really want the best high school in the state, we have an opportunity right now that we’ve never had before.”

Jones said the biggest hang up for him was how unfair it would be to close Skyview and transfer everyone to SoHi.

“As soon as I heard talk that they’re actually willing to shut down both schools and create one new school, then I’m going ‘Wow, OK,’ we can finally have the best high school in the state of Alaska on the Peninsula.”

Several people discussed the prospect of a new school with new colors, a new mascot and a combination of students who could have a new high school identity.

Pegge Erkeneff, district spokesperson, said a new school, with a new identity, was not necessarily what the district would decide. Administrators from each school, who have been meeting to discuss restructuring Soldotna’s schools, met Tuesday and Erkeneff said they decided a task force would need to be formed to determine how the proposed high school would look.

“The area where there is mixed feedback is around the school culture, what’s going to be the name of the school, what’s going to be the mascot ... the colors?” Erkeneff said. “Those are decisions a task force would need to make that we don’t have answers for that.”

Erkeneff said the proposed new high school would be different structurally as it would have different grades than the current high schools have, the color or mascots could still be the same.

“What will be new is that it won’t look like one of the high schools,” she said. “SoHi won’t look like SoHi, Skyview won’t look like Skyview. They’re coming together and making a new 10-12 school.”

Mike Gallagher, parent of a sophomore at Skyview, said he was concerned that a population boom was on the way for the Peninsula and if Soldotna closed Skyview a single high school would not be enough to handle the growth.

Gallagher also said he was concerned that Skyview’s athletes would not be treated equitably when they were transferred over to the Soldotna High School building.

“I like the coaches I got here, I respect them, I’m not saying anything bad against the SoHi coaches but, when these kids start going over there and they’re coming out as sophomores, juniors, there is going to be ... if the Soldotna coaches are still running the program over there the Soldotna guys that they’ve been working with over there, they’re going to get priority,” Gallagher said.

Several people echoed Gallagher’s sentiments saying they were worried about sports and how Skyview’s athletes would be treated at a new high school, or if they would be allowed to participate at all.

After the meeting, Gallagher said he had experienced discrimination from coaches when he transferred from a high school in Homer to Soldotna but would be less concerned if the coaching staff between the two schools were combined.

Erkeneff said community members could visit the school district’s website to leave their comments until Feb. 22. The school board will hold a work session on March 4 to discuss the issue further.

After the meeting, Neill said the thought the conversation had been constructive, but was far from over.

“Everybody has a hard time with change and staff is worried about where they’re going to fit into the picture and the same with me, I don’t know where I’m going to be,” he said. “But we have to focus on what’s best for the kids and the community and I just keep reminding them, where’s our focus?”

 

Related Links: https://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/departments.aspx?id=27294

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

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