It isn’t often all the chairs are filled at a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education. But they were Monday as administrators, teachers, students, parents of students and community members filled the assembly chambers, eager to demonstrate their successes and testify about their concerns.
Introduced by Principal Lori Manion, youngsters from Nikiski North Star Elementary School crowded in front of the board to give a presentation about Character Counts, a youth ethics initiative that focuses on trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
Then a second group discussed in detail the school’s science program.
But it was the prekindergarten group that brought down the house with its rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” complete with much animated hand clapping.
The mood shifted abruptly from laughter to tears as April Skaaren, a Hope resident and mother of two children, spoke about the importance of Hope School to her family.
In October, district Superintendent Donna Peterson wrote a letter to staff, parents and community members in Hope and Cooper Landing concerning the declining enrollment in those schools.
“Information we have at the district office indicates that in the fall of 2006 the communities of Hope and Cooper Landing may drop below the minimum number of students required to maintain a school site,” Peterson wrote.
In her letter, she encouraged public input at regularly scheduled board meetings “regardless of whether the issue is on the agenda.”
Peterson closed her letter by saying, “My hope is that you have evidence of many students moving to your town this year. If that isn’t the case and the school falls below the minimum, changes will need to be made.”
There were 45 students enrolled in Hope School during the 1994-95 school year. The current enrollment is 11. Cooper Landing had 49 students during 1993-94, but its current enrollment also has dropped to 11 students.
“We do not have options for educating our children if Hope School closes,” said Skaaren, who, along with her husband, has developed a combination of businesses that make it possible for them to maintain their home in this community on the shores of Turnagain Arm.
“We don’t have the option to move. We can’t afford two homes in two locations. We don’t feel we have the skills to home school.”
Michelle Stewart, a mother of two from Cooper Landing, followed Skaaren to the microphone.
“I came on the spur of the moment to speak for our community,” said Stewart. Pointing out that there are young children in Cooper Landing not quite old enough to attend school, Stewart said, “Look beyond one year, two years, and plan for the future. We are in the same boat as Hope. And we want our school to stay open.”
Jeanne Berger, president of the Hope PTA, testified that one-third of Hope’s 150 residents are active PTA members.
“Most of them would like to speak to you regarding the closure of the Hope School,” Berger said. “But there’s one major problem it’s a 200-mile round-trip to make at night.”
Berger requested the board close that gap by conducting meetings via Polycom, a system of videoconferencing used for the district’s distant learning program.
“School board meetings are supposed to be inclusive and more of us would like to be included,” she said.
The future of Hope and Cooper Landing’s schools weighed heavy on board members.
“I really do believe this state is obligated to provide free education no matter where (students) are,” said Sandra Wassilie, board member from Seward, after referencing an article she recently read on school consolidation and closure and the value of small schools.
“Hope touches my heart. Any town with a small school knows we could be in the same situation,” said Seldovia board member Sunni Hilts.
“I am distressed by the Hope and Cooper Landing situation,” said board member Nels Anderson of Soldotna.
Acknowledging the role a school plays in a small community, he added, “It’s the whole community’s center and pulse and spirit that surrounds the school. I don’t know how I’ll vote if it comes to a vote.”
The next meeting of the school board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Borough Building in Soldotna.
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