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Nikiski Elementary not closed; some action steps to consider

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2004

On Jan. 29, I read with great interest Jenni Dillon's front-page story on Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Peterson's decision not to recommend further school closures to the school board. In the final analysis, it appears that the penny-wise but pound-foolish decision to close schools is not even penny wise!

I have since listened to Dr. Peterson and board president Deb Germano explain via radio sound bite how not closing any other school but Nikiski Elementary is the optimally "efficient" (I'm quoting Dr. Peterson) way to operate the KPBSD schools.

My friends and neighbors, if you don't have the time to read any further and you reside in Nikiski, you should take note that Nikiski Elementary is not yet closed and possession is 90 percent of the rule. Here are some action items that might enable the school to remain open should you choose to follow through with the advice.

First, you should access the KPBSD Web site (http://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/Schboard/Default.htm) and respectfully ask each board member why Nikiski Elementary should be singled out for closure. Be certain to contact the Nikiski area school board representative Debra Mullins and respectfully encourage her to get an agenda item on the next meeting to explore rescinding the closure decision. She should be empathetic. When we voted for area representation on the board as opposed to at-large, we were voting for greater responsiveness to what Nikiski area residents want for their school children. In this case, Nikiski parents want exactly what every other subcommunity on the peninsula has and will apparently be allowed to keep.

Anticipating potential responses, be wary of any arguments based on assumed benefits related to larger student body (a.k.a. the "comprehensive plan"). Simple logistics will tell you that if you put more kids into a limited space there will be less per capita time spent in computer rooms, art rooms, etc. Furthermore, with rising teacher-to-pupil ratios, the teachers really need outlet rooms for short intervals so that they can split their class and provide more concentrated teaching for those students most in need.

Be ready to question any arguments that state the primary benefit of the Nikiski "Unified" Elementary will be the wider selection of grade level teachers and the elimination of multi-age classrooms. Last spring, the Nikiski Area Student Achievement Interest Group collected 215 Nikiski resident signatures (who represent 305 school age children) as evidence that Nikiski residents prefer reconfiguration of the two Nikiski area elementary schools into kindergarten-through-third-grade and fourth-through-sixth-grade levels as opposed to consolidating the students into one school. This reconfigured school system mirrors that currently available in the Kenai and Homer subcommunities. This reconfiguration plan provides parents a choice of grade level teachers as well as academically benefits the students with dedicated young primary education in a safer, less threatening environment. For the record, NASAIG does not advocate the closure of any school and is satisfied that the administration has likewise determined that schools should remain open.

Do not accept any arguments that Nikiski-area enrollments are uniquely declining. Challenge the board (as borough assembly representative Glick did last spring) as to why the census shows that sufficient student-age children reside in this peninsula but parents are selecting alternatives. Note that the reconfiguration plan into a kindergarten-through-third-grade and fourth-through-sixth-grade system has a much greater probability of returning home-schooled children to the brick and mortar school. Shoving more students into one building will only amplify parental anxieties.

This is information that you will not be told, but which may explain why Nikiski Elementary has been made the sole closure target. Nikiski Elementary was angling toward the description of a failing school by the criteria defined in the No Child Left Behind Act. If you haven't heard of this federal legislation, it is government's (that would be you and me) attempt to hold school districts accountable for educating by linking student achievement to the receipt of millions of education-earmarked dollars.

Sweeping the problems of a troubled school under the rug by blending it with another student body does not effectively solve the achievement problem and is a disservice to this community. You should demand better! The NASAIG alternative to separate into a dedicated kindergarten- through-third-grade and fourth-through-sixth-grade configuration would have a greater probability of improving the overall Nikiski student academic success.

For those friends and neighbors that know me, I know this letter sounds uncharacteristically negative. Following the public policy decision to uniquely close Nikiski Elementary has taken its toll. Please note that I did not write when the promised due process for closure of a Nikiski school did not transpire. There may be some who believe that a series of site council meetings can substitute for timely, posted public meetings. But site councils are typically officiated and are lopsidedly composed of KPBSD employees who directly report to the superintendent. Such conflict of interest and control of agenda does not encourage honest discussion or intention of acting on the parental concerns.

I also did not write when the Nikiski community had no choice in which school was to be closed. Many Nikiski residents believed that Nikiski Elementary had a superior gymnasium and library. The documented concern of asbestos in Nikiski Elementary must be considered a red herring; Nikiski Elementary has been functioning as a school for years and there's no reason to revamp the school whatsoever to accommodate the same grade levels. Most probably this summary decision to close Nikiski Elementary disguises intended non-educational uses for the building that were never approved by voters nor paid by voter-approved bonds.

I also did not write when a Christmastime edition of the Clarion (quoting the North Star Elementary principal) stated that the Nikiski community is over the emotional upheaval caused by this school closure and is looking forward to the combined elementary. I don't know one person not employed by the school district who would make such a statement. What is felt is resignation that this school administration will not heed what the Nikiski public wants for its children based on the accumulated past history of events.

So my friends, I'm writing now and ask your forgiveness for my negative tone. It is my nature to give hard-working public officials the benefit of any doubt. However, this 180-degree turn of events in the saga of school closures and site-specific duplicity has extinguished my last bit of confidence.

Holly S. Norwood

Nikiski



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