26 southern peninsula school faculty leaving

It isn’t only students, moving from one grade to another, whose lives are changing with the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Retirements and resignations are resulting in 96 vacated faculty positions in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Twenty-six of those positions are on the southern peninsula and represent a wide range of experience scattered across grades, schools and areas of focus.

Shere Baechler, who has worked with Paul Banks Elementary School and with Connections, the district’s home-school program, has 25 years experience in Homer as a special education teacher, as well as 10 years experience at other Alaska locations. 

Baechler said it is lessons she learned from her students that stand out.

“I can see each of their little faces and remember something, many things, that each of them has taught me about life, about how exciting learning can be, and most importantly, I think about being a child who is a unique individual with strengths and needs to recognize,” said Baechler.

After years of planning her personal life around the district’s schedule, Baechler said she is looking forward to the freedom to travel, garden, weave, sew and exercise. She hasn’t ruled out beginning a new career, but flexibility is a requirement of any new venture.

“Thank you to the students and their families who have given me the opportunity over the years, to be a part of their early learning experience, and for some of them, their very first school experience,” said Baechler. 

Suzanne Haines, facilitator and gifted teacher at West Homer Elementary School, has been a certified teacher for 12 years, was a substitute teacher for four years and a parent volunteer for 15 years. Haines is looking forward to time for more volunteer work in the community and in schools, to 

visit her daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, to garden, visit with neighbors and friends, travel, hike, read and enjoy the sunshine on her deck with her husband.

Haines also noted lessons she has learned from her students. One particular memory came from working with a diverse group of youngsters on a long-term, hands-on project for a competition.

“They had to learn to listen to each others’ ideas, a seemingly impossible task.  Second, they each had to develop and build something that would hurl a sphere into a trash can a meter away as the first target of three,” said Haines.

The group volunteered weekend hours to work on the project, using discarded materials from home to create a cannon with a spring and triggering device. Failure seemed inevitable when the cannon quit working the night before the competition. When put to the test, however, that was not the case.

“On went their science lab glasses, and into position they went. Back went the spring, out came the tennis ball and, plop, it landed squarely in the first trash can,” said Haines. “I think we all learned the real lesson that day. Together they made their own luck.”

Among those leaving Homer High are Mark Casseri and Hope Kmetz-Casseri. They have been with the district nine of their 30 years of teaching in Alaska and the Lower 48. Casseri taught math, served as the school’s athletic director and coached Mariner boys basketball. Kmetz-Casseri was a special education teacher and spent the last five years building the school’s culinary program.

“Teaching culinary allowed me to get to know many students at a more personal level since it was a practical skill that is fun for most,” said Kmetz-Casseri, who also has been an advisor for Skills USA, an organization supporting career and technical education.   

The couple has plans to continue working their Cook Inlet commercial fishing business, downsize their house, relocate to Kasilof and winter in Pennsylvania to be near an elderly parent.

“I’ve found immense joy in working in the same building and co-teaching with my husband. … As a team, we were able to demonstrate that a ‘couple’ can disagree without shouting and getting angry at each other, as well as showing that we can have fun with each other,” said Kmetz-Casseri.

Another husband-and-wife team leaving the district is Emily Putney, a teacher at West Homer Elementary School, and Mark Putney, a Homer High teacher and Mariner baseball coach. Originally from Kodiak, the couple moved to Homer three years ago after earning their teaching certificates.

“Mark was hired as a brand new teacher by Alan Gee at Homer High and I was hired by Ray Marshall as a brand new teacher at West Homer,” said Emily Putney. Her favorite WHES memory is centered around development of the Lexile Reading Framework, a reading system that matches students with books and provides feedback on their understanding.

“I can think of several students from each of my classes at West Homer that have been completely transformed from a non-reader into an avid reader,” said Putney. “Watching students become lifelong lovers of reading is my favorite West Homer Elementary memory.”

Mark Putney said he has been amazed by students’ “insight into world issues, local events and the complexity of adolescence.” In addition, he valued the opportunity to have learned from “master teacher” Sean Campbell. 

“He not only shared knowledge and resources freely, he also taught me the importance of asking good questions and listening,” said Mark Putney. “Moreover, he encouraged me to find my own teaching style and to take risks. Sean is one of many fantastic teachers at Homer High School that I was privileged to work alongside.”

Moving to Oregon to be closer to family, Mark Putney has a job teaching high school language arts and social studies and will help with a high school baseball team. Emily Putney will complete her English-as-a-second-language endorsement. 

“The wisdom and support that has been poured into our lives from Homer teachers will impact our educational careers from here on out,” she said. 

Justin Derks is one of the teachers on the south side of Kachemak Bay that is leaving the district. He is returning to Michigan, where he will begin day trading the stock market and is pursuing an opportunity to join a business venture.

Derks has been with KPBSD for three years, first as an academic counselor with Connections in Homer and then, two years ago, in his first teaching assignment as the Susan B. English math and science teacher. The 2013 Christmas celebration offered a Seldovia memory that will follow him to Michigan.

“A group of our boys played a Foo Fighters song, one of my favorites, and absolutely rocked it,” he said. “I wasn’t aware that the boys had progressed so quickly in their abilities. I was totally blown away.”

The generosity of those he met while in Seldovia has left its mark.

“To those who took me in and treated me as one of their own, thank you so much,” he said. “For your dinners, cookies, washer and dryers, boat rides, laughs, drinks and song, fires, conversations and friendship I will be forever grateful.”

In addition to departing faculty, there also are staff members going on to new chapters in their lives. Among them are Bob Simcoe and Laura Norton. Simcoe has been custodian at Homer Middle School since 1985.

“In 29 years I’ve had 10 bosses and roughly 3,000 students,” said Simcoe two days after the end of the 2013-2014 school year. “I’m already missing them.”

Norton began substitute teaching with the district in 1987 and for the past 19 years has been a school secretary, serving at Voznesenka, Homer High and, for the last 12 years, at Homer Flex. She is leaving the district to develop her jewelry-making business.

“I’ll miss the kids, but I don’t miss getting up in the morning,” said Norton. “I suspect I’ll put my name on the sub list so I can get a dose of teenager energy.”

Pegge Erkeneff, communications specialist for the district, said steps have begun to fill vacancies.

“We are hiring and encourage people to visit our website to look at current open positions,” said Erkeneff.

As of Friday, 113 total openings with the district were posted online.

The Peninsula Clarion reported those leaving the district include teachers, principals, counselors, speech language pathologists, psychologists and a planning and operations director. Among them is choir and music teacher Renee Henderson. Henderson has been with the district for 43 years. 

While some have only been with the district for one year, others, like Henderson, have worked at KPBSD for decades, pouring their dedication into district students, other staff, parents, grandparents, guardians and the community, the Clarion reported.

Each of the resigning staff have different reasons for leaving — retiring, moving, family matters.

Some hope to walk the halls of district schools again in the fall as substitutes and volunteers, others will be in other states and countries, the Clarion said.

For more information, visit KPBSD.org.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.