Spirited debate: Rivalry, logistics top Skyview, SoHi consolidation talks

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2010

As word has spread that Soldotna and Skyview High schools will have to become more dependent in years to come, some have questioned whether the two can put aside their differences.

Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
Skyview students work last month on a project in an after-school construction academy offered at Skyview High School. The school might offer more vocational opportunities in the future under a consolidation plan.

Twenty years ago Skyview was opened to alleviate a crowded SoHi. Now, with enrollments down at both schools, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has said the two will need to develop a more dependent relationship next fall. That ruling is raising questions about the future of the newer Skyview.

District officials said the changes come as an effort to continue course and program offerings despite dwindling enrollments, which have been especially steep at Skyview in recent years.

The move will entail a coordination of class schedules as well as a twice-daily bus run between the buildings.

District Superintendent Steve Atwater has said he envisions a future where both schools will continue to offer the same core classes. But down the road Skyview may trend toward offering more advanced vocational programs while SoHi offers more advanced placement classes.

Administrators and students at both schools are largely optimistic about the change, and say many of the perceived differences between SoHi and Skyview are more imagined than real.

"I think a big part is parents," said Carol Umstead, a Skyview senior, during a group interview held last week. "They went to SoHi or something and they don't want their kid to go to Skyview, and they have this idea that Skyview is such a horrible school because they didn't go here so they don't know what it's like."

Holly Eyre, a sophomore from Skyview, said she agreed.

"It's been acculturated into us that the other school is not good," she said.

Kaillee Slyold, a SoHi freshman, said she thought people were concerned that competitive rivalries that exist on the court or on the field would also carry over into shared classrooms.

That's unlikely, she argued.

"Sports are one thing. During the game, or during your activity, you're different schools," she said. "But other than that, you are friends and fellow students on the Kenai Peninsula."

School administrators like Skyview Principal Randy Neill said it's perceptions that have created these rifts between the two schools.

"Perceptions are out there and it's tough to deal with perceptions if they don't visit schools and see what's going on," Neill said. "I'm sure there's perceptions on both schools on what SoHi is and what we are, but I think a lot of people don't visit those schools and they don't know what's really taking place."

There's no way to confuse SoHi and Skyview from the inside.

True, they're both public schools serving students in grades 9-12, and they both feature many of the same amenities found in any institution of their size, and then some.

Skyview sits perched on a hill just south of Soldotna and outside the city.

At 117,101 square feet, the building has a capacity to hold 600 students, though presently only 377 are enrolled. Its attendance area includes students from the communities of Sterling, Kasilof and parts of Kalifonsky Beach.

The school's second story windows look out onto snow covered athletic fields and the Tsalteshi Ski Trails leading into the woods beyond.

This past week, the school and its students were looking particularly festive as they decorated the building in purple, white and black, the school's colors, in preparation for the Northern Lights Conference basketball tournament.

SoHi, located in town just past Central Peninsula Hospital, is within walking distance of many Soldotna neighborhoods.

Ten years older, the school opened in 1980, and its age shows in a few places.

Nonetheless, the school's blue and white colors are found spiritedly running through the building.

At 154,637 square feet, SoHi also includes a large auditorium, something Skyview lacks, and has slightly larger classrooms. The school has an 800-student capacity.

While both school's have spacious commons areas, each is unique to the building.

At SoHi, big, second story circular windows beam in light on students having lunch or socializing between bells. Above the commons, a balcony overlooks everything, a spot traditionally enjoyed by the school's seniors during lunch.

Just as SoHi's commons tell visitors they're in "Star's" territory, Skyview's commons are much the same; screaming the "Panther's" colors with heavy purple themes and dark tinted windows shading the light.

Yet many similarities exist between the two buildings. Both have swimming pools, a gym, a hockey rink and shop space.

In the two school's wood and metal shops, students can be found grinding, sanding and hammering away industriously on projects. Poke into a science class at either school and students are bound to be engaged by a demonstration on energy or even discussing the cross effects of science on health.

Both schools will proudly tout their use of technology, too, where textbooks are fast being outdated by electronic worksheets and the blackboard has been outsmarted by interactive SmartBoards.

Since opening, Skyview's numbers peaked in the late 1990s with more than 630 students, but has slowly declined since the beginning of the 2000's to its current number.

SoHi, meanwhile, has bounced around from as few as 430 to as many as 593 students in the last two decades. The district has pegged enrollment there at 534 this year.

Skyview's smaller feel makes it more comfortable and welcoming according to some of its students.

Camila O'Toole, a freshman at Skyview, lives inside of SoHi's attendance area, but called her experiences there "awkward."

"I'd come to Skyview before and it was so welcoming and the environment is so laid back," she said. "This school, you really feel at home at."

Jaxon Hill, a Skyview junior, agreed, saying her experiences with SoHi students were different than those at Skyview.

"At Skyview people are relaxed and laid back and friendly and there's not the cliques," Hill said.

Some Skyview students said they also felt their "edge of town" location left the school drought of community support.

They also said that SoHi had become known as the "sports school."

Others, like Skyview senior Wayne Epperson, refuted some of those claims.

"I think there's the mislead perception that SoHi is the better school because all the people want to go there," he said. "But the same classes are offered here."

Administrators are more hesitant to go after the issue, but will acknowledge some differences exist.

Touring the school at lunch for example, Neill said it's common to see groups of students shuffle and intermix day to day.

SoHi principal Todd Syverson said he sees some intermixing between class years, but generally he can predict where the different grades will seat themselves.

When administrators cruise the hallways, the reactions of the students differs as well.

Neill and his assistant principal Curt Schmidt seemed unable to make it very far down a hallway without having students stop to greet them or discuss a problem they might have.

"I'm a dad for 300," Schmidt said at one point, rolling his eyes as he hefted the backpack of student who had left it with him to store in the main office.

In his experience as an administrator at larger schools in Anchorage, Schmidt said one of the most striking differences was that Skyview students were open to approaching him or Neill if they had a problem. In Anchorage, he said, students rarely discussed their concerns with administrators.

Despite differences, most are optimistic about the opportunities a change will create.

Administrators argue there actually isn't really so much of a change occurring but a continuation of a relationship that's existed for years.

Schmidt said that by aligning schedules and providing transportation, the schools were removing "roadblocks" more than anything.

Syverson agreed with that assessment.

"That partnership between schools has always been there, the only uniqueness is the shuttle," Syverson said.

Counselor's at both schools said that in speaking with students they were hearing a lot of excitement about opportunities.

"I haven't heard one negative comment," said Skyview counselor Mary Dougherty.

SoHi counselor Sara Moore echoed those sentiments in a separate interview.

"For our kids it's more of the same, plus a little bit more," she said.

Among students, that sense of optimism is high as well.

"If I had another year I would say I would definitely take advantage of this situation, I'm almost jealous that this wasn't happening earlier," said Dillon Ball, a SoHi senior.

Some said that while the change open up opportunities, it could also close rifts.

"I'm actually kind of excited to get back together with people that I was friends with back in middle school that I've lost contact with because we go to different schools," said Cody Warfield, a SoHi junior.

Neill acknowledges that some students and staff are unsure of what will happen in the future.

"There's lot of those questions that want to be answered, but we're not there yet," he said.

He thinks however, that a good attitude could address many of the concerns.

"We all perceive things that might not be true about either school" he said, "We just need to be positive and go forth with a positive and open mind. Are there reservations here and there? Yeah. That comes with any change."

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