The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Schools council faces big move, big picture

A new hearing scheduled for sixth grade reconfiguration


Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

KPBSD Superintendent Atwater addresses Seward site council on the subjects of upcoming district budget cuts and comprehensive changes in curriculum and standards at borough schools.

[Update: A public hearing was announced today for 7 p.m., Oct. 24, at Seward Middle School. Details are linked here - Ed. 10/18, ]

Moving Seward Elementary’s sixth grade to Seward Middle School will be considered for a up or down vote at the upcoming Nov. 4 Kenai Peninsula School Board meeting. If it is not fast tracked for a direct vote at that meeting it will end up scheduled for that vote at the Dec. 2 meeting, according to comments by KPBSD Superintendent Steve Atwater at a Seward Site Based Council meeting Oct. 10.

In his subsequent report to the board on Oct. 14, Dr. Atwater informed the board that a letter from the site council and an administrative recommendation regarding the Seward sixth grade reconfiguration would be provided at the Nov. 4 meeting. Seward school administrators are on record as recommending the move and district administration is expected to support that decision.

When questioned at the site council meeting by the LOG about the prospects for the reconfiguration vote, newly re-elected District 6 KPBSD board member Lynn Hohl stated that she would likely be the lone vote on the board against the move.

She said that, despite apparent support by a majority of the community, she couldn’t in good conscience support the change. Hohl’s concern was for the possible impacts of integrating younger children with older kids. “Kids should have the chance to stay kids for as long as possible,” she said.

Hohl referred to her experience of being educated at a school incorporating kindergarten through grade eight students as part of the background for her decision. Although she recognized the arguments for enhancing the education experience at the middle school by incorporating the sixth grade and growing the student body there to a projected 118 students, she is convinced that the possibility that even one student may not thrive in that environment is cause to reject the change.

Seward Middle School principal Jason Bickling reiterated that without the move, student numbers will drop below critical margins for maintaining electives and co-curricular programs including sports. With a next year projection for students totaling less than 90 under the present configuration, there would a two-year gray zone that local students would drop into between the elementary school and high school, where activities and funding are relatively robust.

The KPBSD had administratively assigned extra staff funding for the 2013-14 school year to cover the enrollment gap currently being experienced by the middle school, but that special provision will almost certainly not be extended. According to present Seward area enrollment, middle school student numbers are expected to stay depressed for five to six years.

Although Atwater was available at the site council meeting to address questions about the sixth grade reconfiguration, the agenda had been set for him to first present a big picture report on the district and Seward in relation to issues of school and student performance as well as outlooks for funding.

Based in goals set late in the previous school year, Atwater said that systematic reductions in the district budget were starting to be planned for. He said the district has been dipping into reserves for year on year and with diminishing funding and the risk of unknown budget reductions at the state level, that trend must be reversed.

The goal of studying other school systems and extracting information on how their programs could be applied throughout the district is another priority. With the KPBSD achieving some of the highest testing scores in the state, Atwater still expressed some dissatisfaction with the district’s performance in relation to benchmarks being set in other districts in the United Status.

This comes at a time when there is something of a revolution underway in the way the American public education system teaches fundamental skills, how it tests for results and how schools and teachers respond to that feedback.

As part of his presentation, Atwater spoke to the issue of the introduction of the new “common core” standards, which the state has committed to adopt in line with the federal government. However, teaching using “common core” standards may not necessarily go hand in hand with some of the assessment tools required by federal funding, as Alaska officials are questioning the data collection regime being imposed on the state.

The ongoing introduction of these new standards has caught parents and communities somewhat by surprise. A Gallup poll conducted this summer found that about two out of three Americans have never heard of them in spite of the fact that 45 states, including Alaska, have been signed on to the new system for several years. However, school administrators are cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a more demanding teaching and learning environment.

And as Seward High School principal Trevan Walker put it, the school district and the schools aren’t in the position to question the implementation of the new standards and the related assessment tools. Decisions are made by the Alaska State Board of Education & Early Development and are tied to federal guidelines and the requirements of Alaska’s exemption from the No Child Left Behind Act.

However, the new standards are seen by a growing number of critics as overreach by the education system and the government, overriding local priorities and sensibilities in dictating what school children will be taught. Some are also concerned about centralized collection of sensitive data and question what limits and protections will be placed on the collection and use of such information.

In connection with the budgeting process, Atwater singled out the collective bargaining process as an area that could use some attention. With the amount of effort expended in reaching the latest round of district employee contracts, the question now on the table is how to find a better and more efficient path to securing mutually agreeable pay and benefits.

Additionally, the KPBSD will continue to refine the connection between statistics and what they provide in the way of direction for improving teaching programs and practices.



Reader Comments

ellyray writes:

Please come to the meeting tonight at 7 pm at the Middle School if you're interested in the Seward schools' reconfiguration.


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