Moose Pass School teacher Beth Jones helps seventh-grader Derek Crain on a computer project. Jones, one of the school's two educators, teaches grades four through eight. The room that now houses computers held a third classroom three years ago.
All the things that are supposed to be happening in our public schools are happening in Moose Pass School.
Students are excited to come to school each day and are engaged in their classroom activities. Teachers are able to work with students as a class, in smaller groups and individually to address each pupil’s needs. Test scores are good. Students fare well in district academic activities and are successful when they move on to high school. The school enjoys enormous parental and community support.
Melanie Schilling gives student instructions before turning them loose on a fitness project in the school gym. About two dozen students from kindergarten to eighth grade fill the school's two classrooms.
Yet every year, the Moose Pass community finds itself battling to keep the school intact.
“As far as Moose Pass goes, I think small schools like this should be used as an example,” said Julie Lindquist, a school parent and a member of the school booster club nicknamed the “Moosters,” much to Lindquist’s chagrin.
“We have a lot of parent involvement. We have a lot of people willing to throw in their hat and make sure these kids get something extra.”
Students load onto the school's single bus at the end of the day. Moose Pass School is located a couple of blocks off the Seward Highway in the small town north of Seward.
In fact, said Erin Knotek, an aide at the school in the morning and a parent volunteer for the rest of the day, the school frequently gives out more volunteer thank-you awards than it has students at the school.
The school relies heavily on volunteers, who help with everything from taking kids cross-country skiing for physical education class to providing art instruction in the classroom.
The one thing volunteers can’t do, however, is replace a classroom teacher, and the proposed staff reductions across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District cut much deeper and have a much greater impact in the district’s smallest schools. In the preliminary budget for the 2007-08 school year, Moose Pass was slated to have one teacher to cover kindergarten through eighth grade, a 50 percent staff reduction. In 2003-04, the school had three full-time and one half-time teachers for 33 students. Staffing was reduced to two teachers in 2004-05, and enrollment has tapered to 27 students this year.
Melanie Schilling serves lunch to Lydia Thomas, Demo Argiris and Micaela Rose. "I'm the secretary, slash, food manager, slash, librarian," Schilling said. "I'm also the nurse." Educators at smaller schools like Moose Pass have to wear many different hats.
Parents made the trip to Soldotna to speak out at a number of school board meetings. Prior to the Legislature’s actions this week, the district administration allotted some federal funds to ensure Moose Pass will keep two teachers for 2007-08. The education package approved by Legislature this week will give the district a one-year shot in the arm, and with a task force being convened to address education funding, there is an opportunity for change. However, if no long-term fix presents itself, parents likely are going to be fighting the same battle in the next budget cycle just as they were doing at this time last year.
“I understand that finances are tight. In a state as wealthy as ours, I don’t think anyone understands why,” said Laura Marks, who drives her son to Moose Pass from Cooper Landing for school. “We’re not asking for extras. We’re just asking for teachers. You shouldn’t have to fight every year for your child to be properly educated.”
Making it work
Sixth-grader Lindsey Kromrey, top, and seventh grader Kara Knotek work together on a math project. Older students help younger students with their work throughout the day at Moose Pass School.
The Moose Pass School was constructed in 1935 and is one of the oldest schools on the Kenai Peninsula. The building’s most recent renovations were completed in 1993. Nestled in the Kenai Mountains 30 miles north of Seward, Moose Pass looks out across Upper Trail Lake.
In its current configuration, Moose Pass has three classrooms. Lisa Morris teaches kindergarten, first-, second- and third-graders in one classroom. Beth Jones teaches fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in another classroom. A computer lab is set up in the building’s third classroom one that was occupied by a third intermediate class until 2004.
The halls outside the classrooms are cluttered with projects of all kinds social studies, art, science as well as a small glass cabinet showcasing achievements of Moose Pass students.
Cindy Rorabaugh teaches piano to Damnyan Letter at Moose Pass United Methodist Church down the road from the school. For six years, Rorabaugh has driven from Seward to offer piano lessons to students at the school. Without the unique arrangement, Moose Pass would not have a music program.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Down the hallway from the classrooms is the school’s small library area and office, and beyond that, the room that serves as the gym, cafeteria, auditorium, community gathering hall, and is used for any other function for which the community needs a large space. Though the gym is only the size of half a basketball court, it is fully utilized.
Morris is in her second year teaching. Moose Pass is her first teaching job, and she said she enjoys working in a multi-age classroom.
“I think that what it has taught me is to develop some of those teaching skills that would allow me to individualize for each student which is what we would hope for,” Morris said.
Morris has 11 students in her class. Having four grade levels together in one room has some advantages. Because she has materials for several grade levels, when a student is ready to move up, the resources are available.
“Every student is exposed to the things the second- and third-graders are working on. When they’re ready to learn something, it’s here, so they all do quite well,” Morris said.
Older students are able to help younger students and become role models.
“The older students, each of them will have an opportunity to take on a leadership role. They have ownership in what is going on in the classroom. I think that helps,” Morris said.
Down the hall in the “big kids’ classroom,” there also is quite a bit of peer learning.
“You’ll see a lot students who work with each other. They grew up in this system. If the teacher is busy, they’ll ask someone else,” Jones said. “A lot of it is allowing students to help each other that’s what makes it work. It helps, too, when you have students excited about coming to school.”
Moose Pass students say they like the school’s format.
“I like it because the big kids can help the little kids,” said fourth-grader Laura Kromrey while building a rocket for a science project.
“It makes it more fun to learn. You have different views of how you look at a problem,” said Brooke Estes, a fifth-grader.
Celiene Turner is the school’s custodian, and sometimes the lunch lady, and whatever else she’s needed to be on any particular day. She started attending Moose Pass as a third-grader and has been working at the school for 18 years.
“I think I’ve basically lived my whole life in this building,” Turner said. “It’s unstressful to work here. It’s kind of like a big family. My mom was also an aid here.
“When I went to school here, I needed a little bit of extra help. It was more of a one-on-one, and I wasn’t afraid to ask for help. It gets you prepared for the big school. I’m glad I had the small school, the one-on-one if you needed it. When I got into high school, it went downhill for me.”
Jones said students leaving Moose Pass for high school in Seward or elsewhere are academically well-prepared.
“I had only one eighth-grader last year, and I heard she’s doing well. I have one this year who seems to be on grade level,” Jones said. “That’s the good thing about a smaller school you can focus on the areas they need help in.”
Parents, community play a huge role ...
Both teachers said it is obvious in their students’ attitude and behavior that the community considers education a priority.
“We have parents working in every area of the school for us,” Jones said.
“I’m planning a camping trip, and I expect to have all my parents there. Every single parent has been in the classroom. We even have community members (helping) who don’t have kids in school. Those are things I didn’t see in larger schools,” Morris said. “... By having parents and the community in the school so often, they’re really showing students their time here, their education, is really important.”
Community involvement and the ability of staff to wear a variety of hats has become even more important as budget cuts continue to threaten the school. According to the district, Moose Pass in 2003-04 was budgeted for $329,633 out of the general fund. That number dipped just below $300,000 when the teaching staff was reduced in 2004-05, and has remained at about the same level since then, despite jumps in utility and energy costs.
The preliminary 2007-08 budget which included just one teacher for the school cut the school’s budget to $284,759.
The school has found ways around budget cuts in the past. The secretary spends two hours a day preparing hot lunches a solution that was reached when the district looked into cutting the hot lunch program from the school last year.
To provide music, parents arranged for a piano instructor from Seward to visit once a week. She gives students half-hour lessons at the church next door to the school. Parents and volunteers run school activities, coach soccer and basketball, and help with art instruction and cross-country skiing for physical education class. The Moose Pass Sportsmen’s Club helps raise money for extra programs and field trips. The school pools resources with Hope, Cooper Landing and Whittier.
“It’s like when the road got closed a few years ago because of avalanches. We take care of our own,” Knotek said. “We’re creative. We come up with positive solutions, but we’re at a point now where we need some help.”
... But they can’t do it all
“They’ve taken so much,” said Judy Odhner, a parent who drives the Moose Pass bus route. “We’ve regrouped and made the best of it, but we can’t regroup and buy a teacher.”
“When my son first came to school, we had three and a half teachers. Of course, enrollment was up,” Knotek said. “I’ve seen the school go from three and a half teachers to two teachers. Every time we take a cut, we take a hit in enrollment.”
Other cost-cutting measures have had an effect on enrollment. Knotek said when bus routes were changed, several students who were coming to the school from Seward went elsewhere. Along with the decision to cut a teacher has come discussions of sending Moose Pass seventh- and eighth-graders to Seward Middle School, raising the prospect of up to two hours on the bus each day.
“I feel if they continue to chip away at our teachers there are no frills here they’re forcing parents to consider home-schooling or moving then there’s more kids leaving the school system,” said Marks.
Marks said she home-schooled her son after Cooper Landing was cut to one teacher. She chose the 17-mile drive over to Moose Pass because she saw more opportunities available for her child.
“It has a primary atmosphere, which is what I wanted for my first-grader. He’s really responded to being in a little-kid atmosphere,” Marks said.
Part of the problem, Moose Pass parents say, is in the formula used to determine school staffing levels. What works for larger schools with single-grade classrooms does not work at the district’s smaller schools, like Moose Pass, with multi-grade classes. It’s the same argument, they say, that the district has been using with the state: resources are not being distributed in a fair and equitable way. When cuts are made, small schools are taking the biggest hits. Centralizing programs in Soldotna and Homer may mean more opportunity for students in the peninsula’s population centers, but it means less for the district’s rural schools.
“In large schools, teacher losses are two or three percent, maybe up to six percent,” said Lindquist. “They already have many more programs. The outer schools, losses are 50 percent. It should be the bigger schools taking some of these cuts.
“What I’m looking for is program equity. You can’t look only at pupil:teacher ratio. It doesn’t work. They need to change that. The bigger schools, they’re able to shuffle where we’re not.”
Lindquist would like to see the district come up with a different formula outlining base programming requirements for each school, then assigning teachers based on fulfilling that program.
“There needs to be a different formula for mixed-grade classrooms. Whoever came up with (staffing recommendations in the 2008 budget), those school board members should have said, ‘That’s not possible,’” Lindquist said. “I am grateful we got our second teacher back, but it never should have happened in the first place. If we went to one and a half teachers, this school would go by the wayside.”
One of the things that has come out of attending school board meetings in other parts of the peninsula, Lindquist said, is that she’s met other parents and with similar concerns about the state of peninsula schools.
Lindquist said she wants more for her children once they leave Moose Pass. Seward High School has lost nearly all of its electives over the past few rounds of budget cuts. Moose Pass parents seriously consider uprooting their families from the community so their kids can attend high school at one of the central peninsula schools, where they hope they’ll find more opportunity for a well-rounded education.
“All of our kids are headed for Seward after here,” Lindquist said. “Piano lessons you would hope when they head for Seward, there would be a music program for them there’s not.”
The Legislature has plans to convene a task force to study education funding this summer, the results of which may increase opportunities for students across the peninsula. Moose Pass is a community with potential, parents say. Housing is more affordable than in Cooper Landing, and year-round employment can be found in Seward. It’s a great place for young families to live. The mountains, until recently, blocked out even satellite TV reception, and kids hang on to their innocence a little longer here.
Part of the boys locker room is being used for storing a number of toddler toys for the active community preschool group. The group uses the gym one day a week. The group has quite an itinerary for the summer plans include hikes and campouts all over the eastern peninsula and those children will be starting school in Moose Pass in the next couple of years.
“Keep education in Moose Pass, where it belongs,” Knotek said. “Keep our kids here. Keep our teachers here.”
Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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