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Soldotna area plan for school reconfiguration moves ahead

Making the change

Posted: April 2, 2013 - 10:18pm  |  Updated: April 3, 2013 - 8:12am
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John O'Brien, director of secondary education for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, presents the district's plan for restructuring Soldotna-area schools to help cope with declining enrollment during a community meeting Monday April 1, 2013 at the George A. Navarre Borough Administration building in Soldotna, Alaska.   Rashah McChesney
Rashah McChesney
John O'Brien, director of secondary education for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, presents the district's plan for restructuring Soldotna-area schools to help cope with declining enrollment during a community meeting Monday April 1, 2013 at the George A. Navarre Borough Administration building in Soldotna, Alaska.

Several issues were left unresolved Monday evening as the Board of Education considered a reconfiguration of the schools in Soldotna, but what is certain is that Soldotna High School and Skyview High School will be combined into one school in two years.

The district’s board of education approved a configuration of schools in the district that includes one 10-12 high school which will be housed at the current Soldotna High School and the concept of changes to Soldotna Middle School and Skyview High School. However, the final configuration of those schools is still uncertain.

John O’Brien, Director of Secondary Education for the school district, presented the district’s recommendation for restructuring during a community meeting on the topic before the regular Board of Education meeting Monday evening.

O’Brien said enrollment projections show a continued decline in the number of high school students split between Soldotna and Skyview high schools.

“I just made these calls this afternoon. When you look at next year’s Skyview and Soldotna enrollment, the current eighth-grade class going into SoHi next year is slated right now — actually registered— to be about 158 students. At Skyview we’re looking at 56 students,” O’Brien said. “So, as this process is going forward, these numbers are even starting to slide in the direction that we’re concerned about. What are we going to do with Skyview for their freshman class for next year? This is a real issue that we’re currently having to grapple with for next year.”

Two Skyview students, Austin Laber and James Gallagher, spoke in opposition to the district’s plan.

Laber showed the board members and assembled audience Soldotna High and Skyview’s dropout rates and graduation rates, High School Qualifying Exam, scores and other metric’s of student success.

“Skyview and SoHi are schools that are excelling — over 90 percent graduation rate — when we look at the dropout rate, Soldotna High is at .2 percent. That’s really good,” Laber said.

In High School Qualifying Exam proficiency, Laber said there was increase of 12 percent in the last seven years.

Laber said he believed students were succeeding at the two high schools because of lower enrollment.

“How will this proposal fail? It’s a bigger school so, less opportunities for sports because they’re cutting kids, reduced one-on-one time — which is really important — more orientation years,” Laber said. “Is this the right path for Soldotna? Because I personally believe it isn’t.”

Gallagher said he and Laber had formed a Facebook group called “Save Skyview” which had fostered community conversation on the subject.

“It became a source of information for the community and quite frankly — in my opinion — we’ve done a better job than the committee has (of communicating information),” Gallagher said.

Gallagher said he was concerned that combining the two high schools into one and housing it at Soldotna High would be a step backward for the district.

“It’s an older building and it has no room for expansion,” James Gallagher said. “The counter argument is that the borough owns land between SoHi and (Soldotna Middle School) ... if you go look at that building now and look around the property... there’s not.”

“Skyview, being the newer high facility, also had more room for expansion,” Gallagher said.

He asked the district to provide the information it used to come up with the plan, to the public — a point that his father, Mike Gallagher, also brought up during public testimony.

“If this is the best that is for the kids, how did this information come to us? Was it a small group meeting within the committee? Was there a study group formed? Did we hire an outside agency that was unbiased to come up with this? And, is it too much to ask to see this documentation, to see the references,” Mike Gallagher said.

Board member Marty Anderson, the lone dissenting vote on the proposal, echoed many of the sentiments echoed by community members critical of the proposal after Monday’s meeting.

“I’m not opposed to evaluating the concept and, if it can be done cost efficiently and we don’t give up a lot, I’m not opposed to that,” Anderson said. “I believe in this case we haven’t considered all of the factors involved yet. I believe we need to talk to more industry and find out what’s the (population) going to look like in three to five years instead of looking back in three to five years and saying that we’re going to have to reconfigure again.”

Anderson said most of the data the district presented was about enrollment.

“Our enrollment has declined, no doubt about that,” he said. “What I didn’t see was, what’s ahead? We’ve looked at what’s behind.”

Several people spoke in favor of the restructuring concept during the community meeting.

During the board meeting, Scott Miller, who has two daughters in Soldotna schools, said he thought the whole concept was “a long time coming.”

“I happen to be a graduate before the Skyview split and I see the opportunity that I have that my daughter’s don’t have,” he said. “I was offered four foreign languages at my high school. Spanish, French, Russian and Japanese ... I would like to see some of those opportunities given to them.”

Tony Graham, assistant principal at Soldotna High School, said he moved into the school district because he had been in a position in another state that required him to consistently cut budgets, staffing and funding.

“When we are starting to remove programs — such as Russian — and we can’t offer a full welding curriculum, when we can’t offer a full woods curriculum at SoHi, it makes it difficult when we are trying to give the kids the best,” he said.

Graham said he was also tired of watching students at Soldotna High School being split up from the friends they made in the area’s one middle school.

“I got to see my son for the first three-and-a-half, four months of school eat lunch alone because the four good friends that he made at (Soldotna Middle School) all went to Skyview. They’re still his friends but he doesn’t get to see them ... to see your kid eat lunch alone was very tough, very difficult to do. I didn’t want to step up and tell kids ‘Hey, go each lunch with my kid,’” Graham said.

Each year, Graham said, he sees students go through the same issue.

“I think that has a huge effect on our students,” Graham said.

Barb Belluomini, PTA president at Redoubt Elementary and mother of two students in the district, said she had not seen the data the district used to make its decisions but her own research made her confident in the district’s proposal.

“I would argue that a two-grade model is probably the least beneficial and a three-grade model really gives students a chance to become more cohesive, to identify with their school,” Bellumoni said.

While the high school restructuring took up a large portion of the conversation, there was also discussion about what to do with the overcrowded Soldotna Middle School.

The board of education approved the concept of reconfiguring Skyview High and Soldotna Middle school, however the final configuration needs to be decided and will be presented to the board during the Fall of 2013.

At the middle school level, O’Brien said there were two options available under the district’s restructuring plans:

■ Two middle schools, roughly 300 students each, one located at the current Skyview High School campus and the other at the Soldotna Middle School campus or;

■ A grade nine “house” at the current Soldotna Middle School with the River City Academy and a relocation of the current seventh- and eighth-grade middle school students to the Skyview High School campus.

While the concept of a ninth grade “house” had been introduced during earlier discussions about possible structure, district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said last week that the district had originally scrapped those plans because it would have lost about $800,000 in funding from the state if the freshmen were put in a different building but still considered high school students.

Superintendent Steve Atwater told board members he had been given information from the state that if the district put the ninth-graders in their own school, it would not lose that funding.

However, further research is needed and more input from the community, Erkeneff said, so the district could decide how best to structure the schools.

Rashah McChesney can be reached at

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LaFern 04/03/13 - 10:03 am

Sadly, combining Skyview with Soldotna isn't an option and the only way both can go forward with declining enrollment is with drastic extracurricular (and some curriculum) cuts. The physical distance between the schools and neighborhoods is just too much for them to be combined and one.

The Kenai Peninsula as a whole needs to invest in rental housing, businesses, walking distance driven planning, and non-long commute/resource extraction employment opportunities that will attract younger people and young families (those having children in their late 20s to late 30s). They need to be encourage to stay here in order to bolster the economy, and many of the peninsula's young people end up moving to different parts of the country to start their families because they find where they grow up to be declining in opportunities.

The population is rapidly aging and the average age of a peninsula resident is 53. Compared to the average age of a high GDP earning economy of around 31, this is absolutely ancient and it will be impossible for peninsula institutions and schools to stay relevant or grow when there is only a consumer class and no working class.

cheapersmokes 04/06/13 - 06:01 am

I always feel this is much more about teachers protecting their status quo than giving the kids a better education!

I have to commend the elected School Board for making a decision instead of putting it off for the next board to deal with.

And if anyone doubts that the population of school age kids is not going to be going down for many years to come just ask yourself would you want to have a child in this world now....could you afford to raise it and pay for it's college education since they most likely will need a computer science degree just to get a job at McDonald's to run their fry machine!

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