The morning’s hush is disturbed only by the sound of a crow’s wings at it flies just beyond the edge of the bluff. The sun is still on the distant side of the Kenai Mountains, its light beginning to spread down the Fox River flats and across the surface of Kachemak Bay. The bay’s whispered surf is barely audible in the morning stillness.
Dropping from this vantage point, a series of very steep and very narrow switchbacks descends to the beach. From there, tire tracks mark a road of sorts that follows the shoreline. At its end sits the Russian Old Believer village of Kachemak Selo. Scattered among the homes of the village’s 110 residents are the three buildings of Kachemak Selo School.
There are no school buses going to or from the village. The student live within the village. There is no traffic jam as teachers drive to work, but there is the occasional vehicle that is able, with the help of a skillful driver, to maneuver what passes for a road.
Four-wheelers also are used to make the commute from the top-of-the-bluff parking lot to the village a mile and a half away. Others, like teacher Michele Stenger, prefer to walk. Since 1992, Stenger, who lives at Fritz Creek, has been making the trek daily.
Stenger’s first year of teaching was at Razdolna, where she discovered her love of small schools and the bilingual richness of Russian Old Believer communities. The following year, she began teaching Kachemak Selo’s primary grades.
“Partly why I’ve stayed with the younger kids is to make sure we have a really strong Russian, as well as English program in early elementary,” said Stenger.
Over the years, Stenger has had as many as 18-20 students. This year, her K-2 class has only eight youngsters, a sign that the village’s demographics have shifted.
“There are a lot more elders that no longer have kids in school,” she said.
Stenger’s students also reflect another aspect of the village: its multi-generational ties.
“Almost all of my students, I’ve taught at least one of the parents,” said Stenger.
Teacher Essaia White is an example of the village’s multi-generational ties. He was born in Nikolaevsk and, at 2, moved with his family to Voznesenka, a community on the bluff above Kachemak Selo. White’s father, Stan, taught at Voznesenka and Kachemak Selo schools and is now retired.
After graduating from high school, White studied languages, with an emphasis in Russian, at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is in his fifth year of teaching Russian and social studies and, like his father did, divides his time between Kachemak Selo and Voznesenka.
“I’m extremely passionate about keeping the language alive,” said White, who believes language is a key to keeping a culture alive. He also is passionate about maintaining ties to the community. “This is where we’re from. This is where we belong.”
Michael Reutov, a high school senior, is the student body president. Like his father, he was born in the area. Michael has played football on a combined Voznesenka-Kachemak Selo team, he commercial fishes with his family and works in his uncles’ shipbuilding business. Michael plans to continue fishing after graduating from high school and is currently enrolled in an AVTEC distance-learning class in nautical skills.
“This is a great place,” he said. “Everything I need is here and my family is close by.”
Due to Kachemak Selo’s remote location, education of village youngsters was first done by correspondence. A teacher made monthly trips by helicopter to the village to deliver a month’s worth of assignments and pick up those completed the previous month. In 1988, correspondence teacher John Szajkowski visited the village two or three times a week, traveling by snowmachine in the winter.
“You just have to play it day by day and be prepared, with ice cleats or walking stick,” Szajkowski told the Homer News in a May 18, 1988, story about the challenges of delivering education to the area.
Andy Rothenberger has been making a daily commute to Kachemak Selo since 2005, first as a teacher and for the last five years as a half-time math and science teacher and half-time principal.
“This is a great place to be, especially for a science teacher,” said Rothenberger, referring to the village’s location. “You have some flexibility to step outside the classroom and explore.”
The school’s faculty and staff include six teachers, some of them, like White, dividing their time between Kachemak Selo and Voznesenka. There also are three ELLs, English language learners, a SPED aid, secretary and custodian. The site council includes the entire village.
Kachemak Selo School consists of three buildings “in need of major maintenance,” said Rothenberger. They are privately owned and leased by the district. One houses seventh- through 12th-grade classes, one has fifth- and sixth-grade and the third one is for kindergarten through fourth grade.
Plans for the future include a new school. At 18,599-square-feet, it has room to put all the grades under one roof. The selected site is up the valley from the village, on a slight rise that affords a canyon-framed view of the head of Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond. Wolf Architecture has done a preliminary drawing of the building, done to education specifications. Estimated cost of the project is $17 million.
Fitting educational requirements to village life is sometimes challenging for Rothenberger. There are religious holidays to consider and fishing periods to accommodate.
“We’re in the infancy of putting together our own sort of hybrid distance education so when kids leave (for fishing) in April, they can check out a laptop and when they’re in the harbor, they can get their work done,” said Rothenberger.
The effort is paying off, as seen in the high school graduation rate.
“When I first started, it was common place for 25-50 percent of my high school students to drop out, to either get married or go into fishing and construction,” said Rothenberger. “Now, we’ve had 100 percent graduation for the last five or six years.”
That is a change Rothenberger doesn’t take for granted.
“They (the students) remind me daily ‘I could be fishing right now,’” he said.
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.
Kachemak Selo School
Principal: Andy Rothenberger
WHERE: 44032 Milton Drive, Kachemak Selo
STUDENTS: 56 students in grades K-12
Of 501 Alaska schools rated by the Alaska School Performance Index, Ninilchik received a four-star ASPI score of 90.36.
• 198 schools in the state received a four-star rating;
• Kachemak Selo’s score is the 179th highest in the state;
• Kachemak Selo is one of 23 four-star schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District;