Balto School sketches out plans to school board
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
Seward High Principal Trevan Walker and Seward Middle School Principal Jason Bickling view a televised presentation by Friends of Jesse Lee Home, and Balto School to the Kenai Peninsula School District Board of Education.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education and school district administration heard a presentation by Friends of Jesse Lee Home about their plans for the Balto Leadership School in Seward, during a work session on Monday. It was the first time that the group had introduced themselves to the board, although its leaders spoke with district administrators about a year ago. The work session was telecast live to Seward Middle School, where it was observed by Jason Bickling, the middle school principal, Trevan Walker, the high school principal, and Parent Teacher Student Association President Julie Lindquist.
University of Alaska Anchorage Professer Paul Ongtooguk, who is spearheading the schools’ education model, was joined by Kirsten Vesel, Friends of Jesse Lee’s executive director in making the presentation.
The group has not decided yet whether the school would become a public school within the Kenai Peninsula School District, or whether it would be part of another Alaska school district altogether, Vesel said. Rather, the group has been exploring a variety of different options. As a Seward resident, she hopes they will go with KPSD, she said. It would certainly be the logical choice to go with the area school district, Ongtooguk agreed.
“We’re testing to see how this would be received,” he said. “It’s our first official date.”
“You should be connected to us,” said board of education member Sunni Hilts. Neither presenter would say what the school’s charter would look like, nor whether it would become a charter school, as those issues still have to be decided. Nor did they project how many teachers they would need, or what the per-student yearly expense of the school would be. Those are things that he would be really anxious to know when it comes down to it, said school board member Tim Navarre. The Friends are looking into the possibility of hiring teachers from AmeriCorps, or similar government-sponsored work programs, and are hoping to garner corporate and grant-support for the program, said Vesel.
The Anchorage-based group, and staff of three who work in Seward, have been keeping busy fleshing out the leadership school’s curriculum, however, even as the existing historic school building that they hope to renovate and put into use by August 2014 sits crumbling and exposed to the elements, gutted and vacant for 46 years.
Ongtooguk, of UAA, who taught school for many years in Kotzebue, is looking to the example of the Rural Alaska Honors Institute, or RAHI, held during the summer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as a model for the Balto School. That intensive academic leadership summer program takes young rural Alaskans, and moves their reading levels up an entire grade within a six-week period, he said. The Balto School would offer a semester-long program, however, operating in the fall, spring and summer semesters, with similar goals: increasing the academic performance of high school juniors, and empowering the students in order to help strengthen Alaskan communities. The curricula would stress a commitment to Alaska, self-determination, cultural integrity, leadership, courage and respect.
The school would offer a place-based, experiential learning curriculum, drawing from the many opportunities Seward has to offer in partnership with AVTEC, the Alaska SeaLife Center, National Park Service and the UAF Marine Science Center. The school would engage students in the learning process with Seward’s accessible populations of marine mammals, its thriving fisheries and shellfish industry, production of alternative energies, and rich and varied natural surroundings, he said. The school also would use online blended-learning materials that the group would design.
“We want it to be Alaska specific. We want to encourage and excite this next generation of Alaskans,” Ongtooguk said. With Alaska’s small population, this type of program can have a much larger impact on the state’s future than leadership schools in larger states do, he said.
Some board members were concerned about the impact that the proposed school might have on small rural Alaska schools that are struggling to retain enough students to be allowed to stay open.
“We don’t want to be a part of the problem of draining them,” said Ongtooguk. That’s why participation in the Balto School would only be for one-semester only. On the other hand, Friends of Jesse Lee would like to think that the Balto School would contribute to raising the academic performance of those schools, too, he said.
The group is still fleshing out the details of the selection process for students wishing to attend. The general idea, however, is that all candidates would be required to have some sort of community sponsorship, or recommendation by their schools or tribes. Acceptance would not necessarily be based on their academic achievements. Given strong mentorship and support, and pushed to go beyond where they think they can go academically, in his experience, any student can really fly, Ongtooguk said.
Vesel also gave a rundown on the Jesse Lee Home’s renovation’s project to date. The construction would take place in phases, she said. The first phase would allow 75 students to board at the school, and attend it by its scheduled opening date of August 2014. Additional Seward-based students also could attend. Phase II construction, once completed, with the length of time depending upon funding, would allow up to 150 students to board there per semester, for a total of 450 students per year. Friends of Jesse Lee will ask the state legislature for another $6.5 million appropriation for the building’s construction in 2013. The design would take place from January to March of next year.
The state legislature has already approved four allocations for the project, totaling $8 million, Vesel said. The group estimates they’ll need $12.5 million for the actual renovation, not including the cost of hiring project manager or engineering. Currently, they’re in the architectural review phase. They have hired the architecture firm Kumin Associates Inc ., of Anchorage, to figure out the estimated cost of the project.
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
The Friends of Jesse Lee office on Washington Street in Seward.
The good news that the group has learned is that the project does qualify to apply for National Historic Register historic tax credits, which accounts for 20 percent of capital costs, as the building is listed on the National Historic Register. It will be a lengthy, complex bureaucratic application process however, Vesel said. The project also may qualify for new market capital credits that could account for another 20 percent of capital construction costs, she said.
It’s still too early to tell how the addition of the Balto School might impact Seward area schools, said Seward High Principal Trevan Walker following the work session. Walker has sent plenty of students to the Rural Alaska Honors Institute summer program, however, and said, “It’s a really great program.”