Let’s talk it over

Kenai shares hopes, fears for schools

Posted: Thursday, November 09, 2006

Members of the school board and district administration took the opportunity to listen Tuesday night while residents of Kenai voiced their hopes and fears regarding the community’s schools.

More importantly, all the parties involved in the Kenai Conversation also listened while people representing each school potentially affected by a school board decision shared their points of view.

“They were definitely speaking from the heart, and it was a different tone than some of the e-mails I received. I think having everyone in one room made it apparent there needed to be a meeting of the minds, so I’m hoping that’s going to happen,” said Debra Mullins, school board president.

The hope expressed by many of the speakers addressing the board is that every student in Kenai has equal opportunity and equal access to resources in order to reach his or her full potential.

And the fear expressed by many is that expansion of charter schools within the city of Kenai would create a system in which one group of students would benefit at the expense of another.

The structure of Kenai’s schools, with kindergarten, first and second grades at Sears Elementary, third, fourth and fifth grades at Mountain View Elementary and sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Kenai Middle School, was described by most speakers and in written comment submitted before the meeting as a strength of the schools in the Kenai community.

“I think we’re so ahead of most communities. It’s amazing, the growth and the community effort,” said Garnet Sarks, a parent of students at Sears Elementary School and a member of the school’s site council. “I would hate to see us lose some of these things. I think growth is great — it’s scary, and I don’t think we should have to lose something to get growth.

“We’ve got an edge (with the structure of Kenai’s schools), let’s continue to do that. I want my boys to be Kenai Kardinals. I want that community. I think we can do it.”

However, Kenai’s student population has declined, and there are currently several more educational options for elementary students. The end result of having fewer students in more schools is less of everything to go around.

Some suggested charter school growth be capped, but other speakers said charter school growth is acceptable, provided it doesn’t take resources away from neighborhood schools and addresses differences in student demographics — compared to charter schools’ student population, a disproportionately large number of disadvantaged students attend neighborhood schools.

“I think there’s a way for us to foster successful charter schools and to perpetuate neighborhood schools as the anchor of the community,” said Kenai resident Scott Walden. “I don’t want to see ‘either-or.’ I want to see charter schools succeed and become a choice, not a replacement.”

While most of the comment regarding long-term hopes for Kenai’s schools revolved around a fair distribution of resources, short-term recommendations to accommodate the Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science varied.

The school started as magnet classrooms in Sears in 2003 and opened as a first-through-third-grade charter school in 2004. Kindergarten and fourth-grade classes were added this year, and fifth grade is planned for next year.

The Kenai Middle School site council suggested Kaleidoscope students and staff be reincorporated into the neighborhood schools starting next year, with the process to be completed by the end of Kaleidoscope’s five-year charter.

The Sears site council recommended Kaleidoscope share space in Sears and in Mountain View, and the Mountain View advisory council suggested moving one of the charter schools in Kenai — Kaleidoscope or Aurora Borealis — to a community with a “larger or underserved student population.”

The Kaleidoscope academic policy council asked that the school be housed in one building, a move that would mean either displacing someone else or finding a space outside of school district facilities.

While each suggestion has proponents and detractors, Mullins considered the meeting positive in that it laid the groundwork for the dialogue to continue between the various groups affected.

“Instead of a one-way conversation, all of the groups got to hear each other, which was beneficial, to hear all sides of the issue — and there’s more than two sides,” Mullins said.

Meeting moderator Joe Arness closed with this observation, addressed to the approximately 150 people attending: “I have to say, I’m a member of this community. I’ve read the packet (of written comment), and I’ve sat and listened. ... The solution to this problem is sitting in this room, and it’s not (the school board and district administrators) on the stage.

“You can solve this. You don’t have to go to the school board and a group of administrators and have them referee. If you could come to something that looks like a logical, legal, reasonable set of circumstances, these folks (the school board) would be really happy.”

Mullins said she hopes Arness’ advice would be taken to heart. The Kenai Conversation will continue in school board work sessions, and Mullins said it will likely be two to three months before the board makes a decision — though one eventually will be made.

“As a board member, I felt the meeting was very positive and very constructive. I think the advice given that the community work amongst itself and come up with a solution, come up with a recommendation to the board, was very useful,” she said.

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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