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Gov. Sean Parnell wants school choices expanded

Posted: January 26, 2014 - 10:01pm

JUNEAU — Staff members at Aquarian Charter School in Anchorage are ecstatic that their school was spotlighted by Gov. Sean Parnell in his recent State of the State address.

The old green building hidden behind a strip mall at the corner of Anchorage’s Minnesota and Benson boulevards is busting at the seams with 378 students and fifteen teachers. Aquarian offers a program for students reaching their academic ability with emphasis on the arts. There are 800 names of potential students on a waiting list this year who had hoped to get into its K-6 program.

“It’s been that way for a number of years now,” says 34-year-old Principal Lucas Saltzman. “We already have hundreds asking to get in for next year.”

Parnell said he wants to give parents more options for their children’s education than traditional public schools in the form of state assistance for charter schools, private schools and boarding schools.

Alaska currently has 27 charter schools across the state from Nome to Ketchikan and over 70 private schools handling anywhere from 5,639 to 11,000 students, depending on who is doing the counting. Alaska also has six boarding schools.

The there are several distinctions between the three.

Charter schools are public schools operating under the authority of both the local school board and the state school board. They receive their funding through the local school board. A charter school is created for focusing on a specific aspect of development such as the arts or science as an example.

Private schools in Alaska are usually religious-oriented and receive no state funding. Their sizes range from around 600 students enrolled at Anchorage’s Grace Christian School to 80 attending Holy Name Catholic School in Ketchikan.

The Roman Catholic Church also maintains schools in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Anchorage Catholic schools have a population of 437 students across five schools, said Les Kramer, Director of Catholic Schools. Fairbanks’ Monroe High School, a private Catholic school, has over 200 students.

However, not all private schools are religiously affiliated. Alaska has six Montessori schools ranging from Anchorage to Douglas.

While state funding per student for public education is $5,680, tuition for private schools may be higher or lower than state funding depending on location. For instance, Private School Review reports Alaska’s average tuition is $4,909 per student while Anchorage’s Grace Christian’s tuition, an urban school, is $8,000 per academic year.

As for boarding schools, the six in Alaska normally only serve the purpose of housing out-of-area students and offering them courses not offered at the host school.

Sitka’s Mount Edgecumbe High School, founded in 1947, has 420 students, 90 percent being Alaska Native. Over 90 percent of graduates go on to college. Its science program has such a strong reputation that IBM now offers an internship through the school.

Anchorage-based Chugach School District operates a boarding house in the city usually for a two-week period for instructing life skills not only for its own students from Prince William Sound villages, but also leases out the facility to rural school districts for the same purpose.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District operates the 100 student Bethel Alternative Boarding School.

The Nenana City School District maintains the Nenana Student Living Center for 88 students, which essentially is a boarding house for rural students there to attend high school. Last semester, the Nenana Student Living center was instructing aviation in a pilot program.

The Galena Interior Learning Center operates under the Galena City School District, but its 210 students come from 75 different villages, said Principal John Riddle. “Our biggest strengths right now is in instructing health sciences and construction skills,” he said.

Kodiak’s St. Innocent Academy is a home for boys operated by members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. They attend the Kodiak City School District. The home has housed as many as nine students, but currently has only one.

Alaska boarding schools do have to abide by state public school regulations and are granted licenses by the state. The state also does oversight of boarding schools.

For example, the state suspended Nenana’s license in February 2010 due to inappropriate activities of a dormitory parent. Nenana had to obtain a one-year conditional license in 2010 before the state would grant Nenana a standard operating license.

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