Separate initiatives in Homer and in Nikolaevsk would establish new charter schools in those communities under the umbrella of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The two groups are at different stages in the lengthy process of starting a charter school in the district, a process that is spelled out in the district’s board policies.
Charter schools differ from other free public schools in that charter curricula are allowed to vary from the curriculum adopted by the school district, according to KPBSD. Charter schools are overseen by an Academic Policy Committee, which is responsible for hiring and firing the charter school’s administrator. That administrator is in charge of making sure the school adheres to local and state policy.
Alaska’s Charter School Act was passed in 1995 with major amendments made in 2001. Until 2010, Alaska capped the number of total charter schools that were allowed to operate in the state at 60. Following the passage of Senate Bill 235, there is now no limit to the number of charter schools that are allowed to operate in Alaska; there are currently 31 in operation statewide.
There are currently four charter schools operating as part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District: Aurora Borealis in Kenai, Fireweed Academy in Homer, Kaleidoscope School in Kenai and Soldotna Montessori.
The KPBSD Board of Education heard from Nikolaevsk community members during their Monday board meeting, all of whom testified in support of a charter school for the community. An “intent to enroll” chart included with the group’s charter application describes 30 different families, representing a total of 66 students, who have said they would enroll in a Nikolaevsk Charter School.
In proposing a charter school, the group’s application describes a school intended to meet the “unique needs” of each student, including flexibility for students with “subsistence and rural lifestyles.” The school would respect the traditions and holy days observed by Nikolaevsk’s Russian Old Believer community, which some say KPBSD no longer does.
Chandra Caffroy, a Nikolaevsk parent, said during Monday’s board meeting that a lack of school transportation, concerns about school staff and a subsequent decline in enrollment are among the reasons community members are seeking alternative schooling options for area children.
“It is in response to these inherited problems (and) years of unsatisfactory action on the part of the school district, that parents unenrolled their children and now the same parents have unified to form charter that meets the educational needs of the youth in the Nikolaevsk service area,” Caffroy said.
Caffroy said that while the charter representatives did miss the Aug. 1 deadline to have submitted the intent to form a charter document, the charter group found the information provided “difficult to understand.” She told board members that the school wants to get back on schedule to open in the fall of 2023.
School enrollment data show that Nikolaevsk’s total enrollment has gone down since 2017, from a total enrollment of 62 students in March of 2017, to a total enrollment of 10 in March of 2022. Most recent school data show that there were 25 students enrolled as of last month.
Per KPBSD Board Policy 6187, charter schools are established after an application is approved by both the school board and the Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development. The application process for new KPBSD charter schools includes establishing an Academic Policy Committee and notifying the superintendent of the intent to establish a charter school by Aug. 1 of the year before implementation.
From there, the superintendent established an administrative committee to meet with the charter school representative to review the application procedures. Charter school representatives then prepare the information needed for the charter school application, which includes six requirements from the district and 14 requirements from the State of Alaska.
Among other things, charter school applications must provide a description for the need of the charter, descriptions of education programs including curricula, proposed performance targets, the admission process, administrative policies, process for financial report, student to teacher ratio and proposed number of students served.
Before a charter school can open, it must also go before the board of education during a work session, and then during a public hearing. The application must then be put on the board’s regular meeting agenda, to be voted up or down. If approved, the contract is signed by the school board president and the charter representative. Charter schools are subject to annual review by the school board.
The group from Nikolaevsk has clashed with the district over the Aug. 1 deadline, which they missed. The group wants the school to be up and running for the 2023-2024 school year, but the district says it’s not possible because of the missed deadline. KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said that the district will continue to work with Nikolaevsk residents, but that there are dates that need to be adhered to. Solutions to some of the problems that community members voiced Monday, he said, will take time.
“The crux of the issue, which we discussed, is that Aug. 1 deadline for giving notice of intent to create a charter school,” Holland said.
As residents in Nikolaevsk push for their own charter school, a separate charter initiative is underway in Homer.
KPBSD’s Charter School Advisory Committee convened last week to consider an application submitted by what would be called Homer Forest Charter School. Per organizers’ application, the school would emphasize the outdoors as a classroom and learning that happens “away from screens and in the outdoors.”
“(The ‘forest school philosophy’) focuses on nature and play-based learning for early-elementary students and complements rigorous and high-quality project and place-based education, which is a pedagogy that will be incorporated into all grade levels,” the application says.
Homer Forest Charter School Academic Policy Committee Vice Chair Kay Sturm presented to the advisory committee on behalf of the school, emphasizing the role of “meaningful experiences, rigorous academics, and authentic projects” in the school’s curriculum. Naturalist Studies, Storytelling, Creating with Nature and Community would be the school’s K-4 core disciplines.
While multiple committee members voiced their support for the premise of the school, most were in agreement that work is still needed on operational logistics before it could advance to a work session with the board of education.
Committee and board of education member Matt Morse, for example, said he’d like to see the group come back with additional information about a proposed school facility, a list of potential students, a more structured testing schedule and more details about the proposed hybrid learning system.
“I don’t want to move it forward without you guys knowing for sure that you have everything in place, because then if it gets to (a) work session, it can get voted down,” Morse said. “I want to give you guys the best opportunity.”
Board member Patti Truesdell, who also chaired the Charter School Advisory Committee meeting on Sept. 27, told board members Monday that the Homer Forest organizers will be bringing their application back to the advisory committee.
More information about KPBSD charter schools can be found on the school district website at kpbsd.org.