Efforts to open K-8 nature school in Homer delayed

Charter organizers proposed changing the school’s opening date from 2023 to 2024

The planned opening of the Kenai Peninsula’s first outdoor-centric charter school has been bumped back by a year to give organizers more time to finalize what facilities will be used as part of the school campus.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education voted Monday to postpone approval of Homer Forest Charter School’s charter application until August 2023, after charter organizers proposed changing the school’s opening date from 2023 to 2024.

Homer Forest Charter School has a stated mission of creating a learning environment that happens away from screens and where the outdoors serves as a classroom for students, according to the group’s draft charter. The school mission statement says learning should engage students through “meaningful experiences, rigorous academic, and authentic projects.”

The school’s indoor/outdoor learning model requires an outdoor learning space in addition to an indoor one. Documents provided to the KPBSD Charter School Advisory Committee last month showed a plan for more than one “home base” in addition to flexible learning spaces and a yurt with connecting trails, to be located at the Wynn Nature Center on Skyline Drive in Homer.

The charter group included in early November a letter from Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies Executive Director Elizabeth Trowbridge expressing the organization’s interest in supporting the efforts of the Homer Forest Charter School. The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies operates the Wynn Nature Center.

“At this stage, we are proposing for an opening of 2024 because that’s the concrete facility plan that we can provide you,” Homer Forest Charter Council Vice Chair Dr. Kay Sturm told school board members Monday.

Sturm was presenting alongside David Kaufmann, a member of the charter council. Monday’s work session with board of education members followed months of discussion with the district about starting the Homer Forest School, as well as multiple meetings with the district’s Charter School Oversight Committee.

As initially presented, the Homer Forest School Charter application proposed opening its doors in fall 2023 for the 2023-2024 school year. The bump to 2024, Sturm said Monday, is needed to finalize the details of exactly what facilities will be used to create the Homer Forest Charter School campus.

“The facilities specifically that we presented last time, which is an existing site, would not work in the 2023 timeline,” Sturm said.

The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies is developing what it calls the “A-Frame” property, located across the street from the existing nature center building. It’s that property that the charter group now has its eyes on as a potential campus site. A mock-up of property configuration presented Monday shows places for classroom yurts, a dormitory and kitchen, a parking area with bus parking and staff housing.

“The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies is already underway with construction plans for building a really compatible site that they’ve invited us to be a partner in discussion in,” Sturm said.

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland, who suggested reexamining the application next summer, said the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development requires a charter application to be approved within 12 months of the school opening.

“Based on the idea of that 2024 opening, my thoughts are that we should be looking at this maybe in August of next year, you know, to give you time to secure the facility and to clean up some of the things in the application that still need to be worked on … There’s some areas that need to be rounded out.”

Board members on Monday voiced their general support for the Homer Forest Charter School and said charter members should not be discouraged by the postponement of the application approval. Board President Debbie Carey said that additional time will allow the group to refine their application and make it as clean as possible before it is considered by the state.

“The amount of work that you have put into this is phenomenal and it’s so appreciated,” said Board President Debbie Carey.

The board voted at their regular meeting later in the day to postpone approval of the school’s charter application until August 2023. More information about Homer Forest Charter School can be found on the group’s website at homerforestschool.org.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.