A town hall-style meeting about the future of two Soldotna-area high schools last week stirred up more than just issues facing the two affected buildings.
More than 70 people showed up for what was called a conversation on upcoming changes planned for Soldotna and Skyview high schools on Wednesday in the Assembly Chambers in the Borough Administration Building.
A standing room only crowd made up of students, parents and staff fired sometimes supportive, and sometimes pointed questions toward school officials.
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Steve Atwater and Assistant Superintendent Sean Dusek, as well as Todd Syverson and Randy Neill, principals at SoHi and Skyview, respectively, fielded the questions.
Atwater announced at a recent school board meeting that the two schools will become more dependent on each other in the coming year, offering transportation between the buildings and schedules that mirror each other.
The move comes as an effort to stave off future course losses due to enrollment declines, which have been particularly steep at Skyview in recent years.
One of the first questions brought up was a concern about the rivalries between the two schools coming to a head between students as they share their turf.
Syverson said he didn't think this would be a problem since students already travel back and forth between the schools for courses.
He also pointed out that most of the students at the two schools attended Soldotna Middle School together.
"Our kids get along, they date each other," Syverson said, spurring laughter through the room. "Harassment and bullying issues, we don't tolerate at either school, we would deal with that accordingly, but I don't foresee a problem there."
Skyview senior Jaci Lamborn jumped on another issue that made itself prevalent through much of the meeting.
Lamborn questioned why a sports program would continue to be maintained at Skyview, saying she believed out-going eighth-grade student athletes from Soldotna Middle would go to the school with a stronger program, and that in her opinion was SoHi.
"What's the point of even having sports at Skyview still, if all the kids are just going to go to SoHi?" she said.
Neill said that keeping the sports programs was a way to hang on to kids that otherwise might not stay in school.
Lamborn responded by questioning whether the sports program would eventually be "weaned out" of Skyview.
"Honestly, next year we're not going to have a girls basketball team that's competitive," she said.
Neill conceded, saying that some sports weren't as competitive as they should be.
That was the point Lamborn said she was going after, arguing that if the teams weren't competitive and continually lost, students wouldn't be motivated to play for them. She said she felt it would be better to instead have a single sports team and possibly offer intramurals, as well.
Neill said the school was on track to go from a Class 4A school, one with enrollment over 400 students, to Class 3A, which is for 101 to 400 students, which would make it more competitive in the future.
Discussion about the future of sports at the two schools was at least one sticking point during the meeting, despite a comment from Atwater who said at one point that it shouldn't necessarily be.
To that, much of the room responded that in fact, it was.
The district's attendance boundary policy, or lack there of, generated a number of comments and questions as well, including one early on from Casee Penrod, also a senior at Skyview.
Penrod received loud applause from the crowd when she read from a letter she drafted in anticipation of the meeting.
"Because boundaries are not enforced, both high schools visit the middle school trying to show off what they have to offer in hoping to get the attention of incoming freshmen," she said. "This is not how it should be, kids are too excessively influenced by their peers to make such a decision."
The district only enforces attendance boundaries when a building reaches capacity, and otherwise allows students to attend any schools they choose.
Penrod said the course offerings and the competitiveness of the two schools would level out if boundaries were enforced.
Atwater responded by saying that addressing boundaries was a complicated proposition.
"That's going to be a fight, big time," he said. "If the will of the community is to go to boundary enforcement then we can do that, but I don't believe that's the case."
Atwater told the crowd the boundary policy reaches beyond the high schools, and said he thought many parents, particularly those of elementary aged students, enjoyed being able to take their children to schools closer to where they work.
"For us to say that you can only go to your area of attendance school, that's an option, that's a very severe option," he said.
Penrod shot back though, asking why parents and middle school students would give Skyview a second chance if SoHi had more course offerings and a stronger sports programs.
"And that's the purpose of this conversation is to give some more opportunities for Skyview to offer so it can attract students," Atwater said.
The district continued to stand its ground on boundaries as the issue came up several more times during the meeting.
Paul Zobeck, who identified himself as a retired teacher who'd worked at both schools, argued for the creation a single large high school.
"Historically we can say that the schools were at their very best, both schools, when they were at their biggest," he said.
Zobeck said in big schools teachers can focus on their field, unlike in small schools where a teacher may take on additional subjects because of staffing shortages.
"Tonight we're at this meeting because we're finding out that too many is way better than too few," he said. "We're going to continue having this discussion until we figure out where are those people going."
Zobeck went on to argue that the many schooling options offered by the district beyond traditional schools was hurting them.
"Until we address that problem, expect to be back here next year," he said.
Zobeck said if both schools were combined with their current enrollments it still wouldn't surpass the number of students that went to SoHi during its peak years in the late 1980's.
"My ideal school would be to make the junior high and the high school a campus with the biggest most beautiful -- Dr. Atwater pray for this -- vocational building, right on top of that tennis court that doesn't do anything anymore," Zobeck said, drawing laughs and applause from the crowd.
Not all the comments at the meeting were negative toward the plan though. Some students and parents showed their support, and indicated they thought the move was a good one.
SoHi seniot Dillon Ball said he felt combining the schools to preserve courses was important.
"I think that by following this plan, that is a major advantage, to offer advanced automotive, to offer advanced welding classes, these are the kinds of fields a lot of kids are going to go into," he said. "I really see this as enhancing the options that practical arts students have."
Administrators have touted that by combining the two schools next year, they will allow SoHi students to have continued access to two advanced trades courses they otherwise would have lost, as well as to an automotive tech course they never had access to before.
Atwater said that preserving vocational programs was also a way to try and keep students in school.
"The drop out situation is very real for this district," Atwater said. "Right now about 106 kids have dropped out since September from this district. Last year, 147 kids disappeared."
The district has a little over 3,000 students in grades 9-12 this year.
"The more diversity, the more options that we can offer our kids, the better it is for those kids on the fringe."
Neill also called upon several Skyview students who said they planned to take advanced placement courses at SoHi next year.
Officials conceded that they didn't have all the answers about the long-term future of the two schools,
"This is a pilot," Syverson said. "We need feedback. That's why we wanted you folks here,.We don't have all the answers but we wanted to work on it together."
Dante Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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