Students, teachers head back to class amid district changes

Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Area schools have been quiet this summer, but that all changes today.

This morning, the 41 schools on the Kenai Peninsula will once again teem with children lugging backpacks full of schools supplies and the natural energy high that only the first day of school can bring.

Brandon Smith, a 12-year-old heading into the seventh grade at Kenai Middle School, said he's raring to go for the new school year.

"There's nothing to do around the house. Mostly, I play video games and ride my bike, but it's raining now," he said, while he and his mother, Becky Smith, stocked up on school supplies in Soldotna earlier this week.

Brandon admitted his tune may change after a couple weeks of school "I'm not looking forward to homework" but for the most part, he said he's ready to head back to the classroom, see his friends and get going on some new activities.

"I like science," he said. "It's fun and there's lots of hands-on stuff."

Brandon's not alone in his eagerness to return to school.

"They have been waiting all summer for school to start," said Chris Hoke of her children, Heather and A.J.

Eight-year-old Heather is about to start third grade in Mr. Boyles third- and fourth-grade multiage class at Nikiski Elementary School and says she just loves to learn.

"It's fun," she said. She added that she's actually looking forward to homework, especially in her favorite subject: spelling.

A.J., a 6-year-old getting ready to join his sister at Nikiski Elementary for first grade, had less to say. But he too said he liked learning.

But as much as some kids are looking forward to seeing their friends, enjoying recess and, yes, even learning, their parents say they have a few concerns about the coming year.

Lysa Diorec, whose children Courtney and Brandon McCauley attend Kenai elementary schools, said she worries about recent reports on students' assessment test results.

"I think some of the kids are weak in reading," she said. "I would hope schools help out a bit more with tutoring and checking up in general."

Improving test scores, as well as identifying students who need extra help, has long been a priority in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and likely will continue to be this year with the nationwide implementation of No Child Left Behind Act statutes.

Earlier this month, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development released a report announcing which Alaska schools made "adequate yearly progress" on government mandated tests. Only about half of peninsula schools met the mark. And while many of the shortcomings were based on attendance on test days rather than actual test scores, district officials admit that some students do need more help.

Overall, average scores on the peninsula are within the range the federal government expects for the 2009-10 school year. But, said Assistant Superintendent Gary Whiteley, "We certainly have things to work on with some of the groups of kids."

Right in line with her concerns about student achievement, Diorec said she also worries that class sizes in the district are getting larger.

Last year, the school board increased the pupil-teacher ratio in a desperate effort to trim the district budget. Board members and district officials have lamented the increase, but say the district is trying to adapt.

"The classroom sizes are pretty large," Diorec said. "The need to try extra hard."

Class sizes and budget cuts also are a concern for Smith.

"There are less teachers," she said. "And they're getting rid of a lot of of stuff, like shop."

"And art," Brandon added.

"I know parents are manning the library, and you just don't know what else might go," Smith said.

Hoke said she is happy with her children's school for the most part, but she, too, worries about the future.

Her children's school is scheduled to close after this year, and the students will be transferred to North Star Elementary.

While she said she's not completely opposed to the consolidation, Hoke said she hopes the experience won't have too big an impact on her children's education.

"We'll see how it goes," she said. "Hopefully, they won't make too big of classrooms to fit all the kids in."

The Nikiski-North Star elementary school consolidation is the only one immediately planned in the district, however, further discussions are expected this year as the declining enrollment trend continues.

Hoke said the continual budget stresses on schools causes other concerns for her as well.

"Nikiski High is cutting a lot of extracurriculars, and to me, that's a big part of school," she said. "They keep kids motivated, and they're one reason I didn't home school."

Hoke was talking about both extracurricular activities, such as sports and drama, and exploratory classes, like art, music and vocational education.

At some schools, elective classes have had to take some cuts, both because of budgetary problems and the increased focus on traditional academics due to No Child Left Behind.

However, the district is trying to moderate those cuts in several ways. Schedules at central peninsula schools have been rearranged to allow schools to share qualified teachers, and the district's Work-force Development Program at Kenai Central High School is growing to allow students to take more vocational education classes. The district also has said it will work with the Kenai Peninsula World Class Workforce Coalition, a still-forming entity designed to increase vocational offerings for both students and workers on the peninsula. It also has developed a career and technical education curriculum to expose more students to career options throughout their education.

As far as extracurricular activities, the district made some budget cuts this spring, eliminating the travel budget for student activities. To counter the cuts, the school board voted to increase participation fees for several sports. In addition, several groups spent some of the summer putting on fund-raisers, and booster clubs have planned benefits throughout the coming months.

The district also is forming a task force to explore alternative funding options for student activities in hopes of keeping the programs available without having to pit academics against sports in future budget plans.

Despite the worries about the future, though, most parents say they are looking forward to sending their children back to school.

"I'll actually miss them, but it's lots of fun for them," Diorec said.

And, teachers say they're ready to make the school experience a great one.

Teachers around the district have spent the past week preparing for the year with in-service days and meetings, not to mention spending hours decorating to make classrooms a fun and comfortable place.

"A number of us are getting ready a little early," Eileen Bryson, a kindergarten teacher at Sears Elementary School, said last week. Bryson noted that Sears will kick off two magnet classrooms with specially focused learning environments this year, adding excitement to the school building.

"I think that excitement will flow throughout the school, and kindergarten is always exciting, always eventful and always fun anyway," she said.

"We're just about ready to go."

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