Fireweed Academy: offering alternative education

Fireweed Academy currently operates out of two locations, with grades K-2 at 813 East End Road. -Photos by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Fireweed Academy currently operates out of two locations, with grades K-2 at 813 East End Road. -Photos by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

The only charter school in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Fireweed Academy opened its doors as “Homer Charter School” in 1997. Two years later, using a consensus decision-making model, the teachers, parents, staff, the school’s Academic Policy Committee and community members renamed it “Fireweed Academy.”
One of KPBSD’s 43 public schools, what sets Fireweed apart is a charter that presents an alternative curriculum based on theme immersion, a specific theme chosen each quarter to be incorporated throughout the school.
“So, we do not have to follow the text book curriculum and theme sequence that the district chooses,” said Fireweed Principal Kiki Abrahamson.
Students are required to take the same tests as others in the district and state. To maintain its charter, it must meet or exceed the district’s achievement scores, remain fiscally solvent and meet all federal, state and school district laws and regulations. The state also requires each charter school have an academic policy committee.
“It’s similar to a site-based council in a traditional school, but is mandated by state charter school law. It makes the decisions about the needs of the school,” said Abrahamson.
Fireweed’s APC consists of two community representatives, one parent, two students, two staff and one honorary member. A second parent position is currently vacant.
About 32 students in grades 4-6 enrolled in Homer Charter School (Fireweed Academy) its first year. Abrahamson was half-time teacher and half-time aid. Not only was she the school’s first teacher, it was her first contracted teaching assignment.
“That was my first interview and I’ve been here ever since,” said Abrahamson.
Originally located in two portables next to Paul Banks Elementary School, Fireweed expanded to include third grade and moved into available classroom space at West Homer Elementary School. Three years ago when Fireweed’s program grew to include grades K-2, it opened a second site on East End Road.
“The most important thing about Fireweed is that we are grounded in this idea of many continuums of learning,” said Abrahamson.
While there are multiple learning avenues — math, science, literacy, etc. — Fireweed recognizes “that kids come in anywhere on that continuum of learning, not necessarily at a specific grade level,” said Abrahamson. “It’s our job, regardless of where they come in on that continuum, to move them along, to provide them with opportunities to grow in their skills and disposition.”
An approach providing opportunities to construct meaning also is applied, offering students presentations, topics and assessments “about where they’re going and what they need in order to construct meaning at different levels.” A focus on differentiation provides experiences designed “so that groups of students can work on different activities at different paces and at different levels.”
In the past, state funding for charter schools was less than for other public schools. Last year the Legislature changed that, now providing “the same rate that it funds other schools of our size in the state,” said Abrahamson, recognizing Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, for supporting the change. “We are so darned happy right now that we can go to sleep and not worry about remaining financially solvent. It seems like other challenges are miniscule compared to that.”
The ease in funding concerns means attention can now be focused on getting all Fireweed students under one roof.
Nine years ago, when Stephanie Zuniga was offered two different teaching positions in the district, she chose Fireweed Academy “because I had observed that there seemed to be more flexibility to be creative and think outside the box as a teacher and as a learner. The teaching style of themes resonated with how I like to teach and learn.”
This is Jon Kulhanek’s fourth year teaching at Fireweed.
“I’ve always been drawn to innovative, alternative education settings, and Fireweed really defines both of these in Homer,” said Kulhanek. “Fireweed has a talented group of teachers, and offers the freedom to work collaboratively with students in ways that allow me to honor student passions and interests while meeting the State Standards; all the while keeping school a joyful place, and shaping students that are successful academically, creatively and socially.”
Although he didn’t know anything about Fireweed before enrolling his child there, Matt Strobel wanted an environment that was a little less traditional and was an enjoyable place for his child to spend time.
“I think that’s turned out to be true,” said Strobel of Fireweed. He is a parent representative on Fireweed’s APC.
Since enrolling her daughter at Fireweed, Amber Niebuhr has been impressed with the attention staff and teachers gave each student.
“They focus on the kids as individuals while simultaneously encouraging them to be active and cooperative participants in their learning community,” said Niebuhr, a community representative on the Fireweed APC.
Kary Brinson’s sons, former Fireweed students, are now 16 and 19. Brinson serves on the APC as a way to “help preserve the philosophy of the school and hopefully keep it on course for expansion into the higher grades.”
Fireweed allowed Brinson to give her sons the experience of the alternative education Fireweed offers.
“It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made for them,” she said.
To families considering Fireweed, Niebuhr recommended spending a day or half day in a classroom, observing the interaction between staff and students.
“There is a belief among some that Fireweed lacks structure, but this could not be farther from the truth,” said Niebuhr. “Students are provided with a well-structured environment. It is just tailored a little more toward individuals and will look a little different from what might be considered ‘mainstream.’”
Having been at Fireweed Academy since its beginnings, Abrahamson also recommends families choosing the best learning environment for their children “spend a day talking to teachers, families and students. And I would suggest they do that at other schools, too. Each individual student has individual needs and they have to determine individually for themselves what school best fits the needs of their child.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

Fireweed Academy
principal: Kiki Abrahamson
Location: 813 East End Road (grades K-2); 995 Soundview Ave., Suite 2 (grades 2-6)
students: 105
• Of 501 Alaska schools rated by the Alaska School Performance Index, Fireweed Academy received a four-star score of 91.26.
• 1 of 198 schools in the state to receive a four-star rating.
• Fireweed Academy’s score is 149th highest in the state.
• Fireweed Academy is one of the 23 four-star schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
• Fireweed Academy’s score is 26th highest of the 43 KPBSD schools.

Grades 2-6 in available classrooms at West Homer Elementary School, 995 Soundview Ave-Photos by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Grades 2-6 in available classrooms at West Homer Elementary School, 995 Soundview Ave-Photos by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

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