Access to Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilities and more extracurricular opportunities were among the ways attendees at a community meeting last week said the school district’s home-school program could be improved.
In all, more than 70 people attended Thursday’s meeting, organized by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and school district, either in person at the borough assembly chambers or remotely via Zoom. The event was billed by the borough as a community conversation about home-schooling with an emphasis on families’ experiences with home-schooling.
By the end of the evening, school district and borough leadership had listened to roughly two hours of testimony from people who attended in person and remotely.
Moderating the Thursday night meeting, which was held in the borough assembly chambers, were Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland and Connections Principal Doug Hayman. Also in attendance were Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members Bill Elam and Tyson Cox, and KPBSD school board members Jason Tauriainen, Penny Vadla, Debbie Cary and Matt Morse.
The meeting came as both the borough and the school district work to bring the Kenai Peninsula’s non-KPBSD home-school students back to the district.
For the current school year, KPBSD is projecting 8,450 enrollment across its 42 schools, including about 1,000 in Connections, the district’s home-school program.
An additional 1,440 home-schooled students living on the Kenai Peninsula were attending a school program that is not Connections as of February 2023. Of those, nearly all — 95% — were enrolled in Interior Distance Education of Alaska, or IDEA, which operates out of Galena.
New attention was drawn to local home-schooling options during the most recent school district and borough budget cycle, as KPBSD faced a $13.1 deficit. The Clarion reported in February that, if all 1,440 non-KPBSD home-school students decided to enroll in Connections, the amount of money KPBSD receives from the State of Alaska would increase by about $7.7 million. That number does not factor in the associated cost increase that would come with such a spike in enrollment.
Micciche during a presentation to the joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce on Thursday called that amount “leakage” and said both the borough and school district should be working to make Connections a more appealing program for home-school families.
“The bottom line is, I would like for our home-school students to attend our home-school,” Micciche told attendees at Thursday’s meeting. “So we want to understand what it takes, what the gaps are, what we’re missing, to bring you back home.”
Connections in April said it was boosting its advertising and community involvement as a way to attract new students to the program, and the KPBSD school board in an Oct. 2 meeting unanimously voted to add pre-K to the grades served by Connections Homeschool. Previously, Connections served K-12 students.
In proposing the change, the district said including pre-K would allow the district to supply those students with early learning materials while also making Connections a more competitive program.
“The reason for the requested change is so Connections can offer appropriate instructional materials for our Connections PreK students,” KPBSD’s BoardDocs page says. “This will enable KPBSD/Connections to help support our PreK students with early learning materials.”
Pros and cons
Participants offered a slew of reasons why they educated their children through a specific program, whether it be Connections, IDEA or something else.
Some who spoke said less control, more flexibility when it comes to religious curricula and better customer service were among IDEA’s advantages. That’s compared to Connections, which others liked for allowing home-school students to take in-person classes at a local school and allowing home-school students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
Misty Peterkin said her decision to enroll with IDEA was as simple as that program answering the phone during the summer. Seward’s Christiana Smith said her son moved to Connections after already being required to take some classes remotely.
Jeff Dolifka said a community conversation about local home-schooling options is “long overdue” and said the stigma surrounding the practice has gone down since he was in school. Dolifka said people he’s talked to have voiced concerns about Connections’ compatibility with parents seeking religious curriculum and that IDEA has a good reputation on the Kenai Peninsula.
“I think there’s so many people who have such a great, streamlined experience with Galena that that travels out in the community,” Dolifka said.
Chelsea McGarry, who has three kids, said she decided to home-school her son when he started school because she felt like she was not “done investing in him in that way.” IDEA, she said, came highly recommended.
“As I took it year by year, I really grew in confidence in educating my kids, and it just was a wonderful fit for our family,” McGarry said. “So I don’t have anything to say about Connections. I have zero experience with them in the public school system.”
Religion was also a big theme of testimony given Thursday, with multiple attendees expressing concerns about having to use secular curricula. Kerri Nelson owns The Study, a private K-6 school in Soldotna that includes the Bible in its curriculum, and said her families had previously struggled to navigate the rules regarding reimbursement for secular versus non-secular materials.
The Alaska Department of Law last summer reviewed whether or not families enrolled in home-school programs that receive state funding can use their allotments to pay for private school classes. As reported by Alaska Public Media, the department ruled that state allotments can be used to pay for some private school classes, but not for full-time tuition at a private or religious school.
“My parents were really frustrated with the whole process of Connections and they felt not supported,” Nelson said. “So IDEA had contacted us, and they just did a beautiful job helping my parents understand how they could get reimbursed for the secular courses.”
Others, like Nikiski resident and current KPBSD School Board candidate Lyndsey Bertoldo, said the general absence of the Bible from public schools is an issue. Bertoldo said if tax dollars are used for public education, teachers should be willing to introduce students to the Bible.
“It seems to me whenever a school or home-school program accepts money from the government, they either voluntarily or involuntarily surrender their right to use the Bible to teach basic truth and knowledge to children,” Bertoldo said.
Hayman said Monday that KPBSD’s determination of what programs home-school allotments may fund comes from Article VII, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution, which says “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”
“Public funds may not pay the tuition fee associated with any private school or any classes/materials included in the tuition fee of that school,” Hayman said. “We will reimburse for non-religious materials or tutoring.”
Further, Hayman said Connections students can use eligible faith-based classes on their high school transcript and get credit for those classes. However, such classes do not count toward the total number of classes the State of Alaska requires for a student to be considered full-time.
Hayman said the state considers a student full-time if they are carrying four classes. High school student athletes must carry five. The classes a student takes are recorded on their Individual Learning Plan. Faith-based classes are also reported on that plan, but in a different category so they do not count for state funding, Hayman said.
Many attendees at Thursday’s meeting offered ideas for how KPBSD could improve the Connections program to make it more appealing to students and families.
Xinlan Tanner, a high school student attending Connections, said she attended IDEA as a child because it was a well-known program and was flexible with curricula, but switched to Connections after maxing out on IDEA’s math courses.
Tanner said she likes Connections because she gets grades from teachers rather than her parents and because she is able to build relationships with school staff that have helped her with her college application process. Connections could be improved, she said, by offering internship or job training opportunities, and by creating more opportunities for brick-and-mortar and home-school students to interact.
“I feel like that’s something we can improve on, is trying to bring our students more opportunities that public schoolers have, whether it be through (the Alaska School Activities Association), or any kind of competition that is usually open to high schoolers,” she said.
Tiffany Holt, who said she home-schools her kids through IDEA, said she would switch to Connections if KPBSD’s program allowed its home-school students to access KPBSD’s sports facilities and implemented a program that assists high school students with finding college scholarships. Holt said she’d also explore Connections if any of her kids want to take high school classes.
“I think Connections is a fabulous program and I have a lot of friends who are in Connections and they definitely value what they have there,” Holt said. “ … I don’t have anything against what you’re doing. If I happen to have children who want to take high school classes, that would make me want to come over to Connections for sure.”
The district responds
Holland at the end of the meeting said that he appreciated hearing everyone’s ideas and said that, while the lost funding associated with non-KPBSD home-school students is significant, it’s also important for the district to have a good program.
“Yes, there’s this financial piece that is big, obviously, but the competition is we want to get as best as we can be for our kids,” Holland said. “This is about the kids. This is for them. … It’s about doing things the best we can for every family in our district.”
Hayman said Monday that some of the suggestions he heard Thursday are already in the works within their program.
For example, Hayman said he is already in communication with schools about establishing times for home-school students to use their facilities, including pools. Additionally, he said Connections is already working to create scholarship and post-high school advising opportunities. Supporting outlying schools and quality customer service, he said, are also priorities.
Hayman told attendees at Thursday’s meeting that, ultimately, his goal is to build up Connections such that it can meet the needs of Kenai Peninsula families better than IDEA.
“The kind of competition I am into is to actually make the very best program so that your kids don’t end up living in your basement their whole life,” Hayman said. “We want your kids to (have) every opportunity open to them. That’s what we’re about.”