With almost 39 years in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Karen Wessel is in her 18th year at Homer Flex High School.
“Every morning I come in with the hope that I can help make a difference in a young person’s life,” said Wessel, the school’s principal.
Hope has guided this alternative school for grades 9-12 since it opened its doors in 1989, even though the school has changed since its early days.
“In the past we had more at-risk kids,” said Wessel. “We now attract kids that want to move at their own pace, kids that are graduating in three years because they can work faster, while at the same time achieving proficiency.”
In 1989, a grant through the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act funded the launch of Flex. It operated under the auspices of Homer High School and its students were age 16 and older.
“It was to recapture youth who had dropped out,” said Wessel of the program.
The program’s mornings were for academics and afternoons were dedicated to student employment, apprenticeships, internships or volunteer work. Much of the teaching was either computer-generated or correspondence courses.
During the 1996-1997 school year, enrollment was 10-15 students and district administrators “didn’t feel it was worth the outlay of resources,” said Wessel. The site council argued, “If we helped 15 kids, it was worth it because where else would 15 kids go,” said Wessel of the argument that saved the school.
Flex also was struggling with space needs. After opening in the building now occupied by Head Start, it had moved to Pioneer Avenue where K Bay Caffe is currently located and faced a conflict between the number of people in the building and fire code restrictions. A resolution came when former Flex student Angela Harlow discovered an available two-story building at the corner of East End Road and Ben Walters Lane.
In the fall of 1997, with a student enrollment of 30 and after a temporary stay in a shop bay at Homer High School, Flex moved into its current home. Support from the school district set the school’s enrollment at 36, thereby saving it from future closure due to fluctuating enrollments.
Over the years, Flex has developed an academic integrity due, in part, to teachers “who choose to be here knowing the type of school it is, the kinds of students that may come in that need a lot of listening to and compassion, while no less holding them accountable for academics and learning,” said Wessel.
Individual responsibility is a must-have for Flex students, going hand in hand with academics and the exploration of employment opportunities.
“They have to be here on time, ready to work, every day. Those are the three keys to success here,” said Wessel.
To illustrate, Wessel pointed to the school’s performance-based model. One tool is a detailed electronic grid that allows each student to be aware of his or her progress in academics, job proficiency, personal and social skills.
Senior Sammy Tangman has been at Flex continually since her sophomore year. After holding down a seasonal job through the summer, Tangman, who supports herself, is focusing on academics and hopes to graduate in December.
“When I came here, it was a whole new, exciting way to learn,” said Tangman. “I appreciate what Flex has done for me. This is the kind of school that will motivate you, find you opportunities, find you a career and give you a break.”
Senior Anton Kuzmin has been at Flex since late in his freshman year.
“I’m here because my family does a lot of commercial fishing in (Prince William Sound) and since the season starts early and I’m one of the permit holders, I have to leave school to prepare for that,” said Kuzmin of the flexibility he needs to complete his schoolwork and participate in his family’s fishing operation.
Kuzmin, who plays on Homer High School’s hockey team, values Flex’s “really cool and very understanding” teachers. His advice to anyone considering where to attend school, whether Flex or elsewhere, is to stay in the program that fits best, “but if you’re having trouble with school, with fitting in, come here.”
Junior Kaylynn Bunnell has attended Flex since the second quarter of her freshman year and plans to graduate in the spring. For the past two summers, she has interned for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and is currently an AK PHAT (Promoting Health Among Teens) peer educator.
“I wanted a place where I could do my school work and not have to deal with the social aspect of school,” said Bunnell.
“When I came to Flex, I wound up making a bunch of really good friends and still get my school work done.”
Before coming to Flex 13 years ago to be a paraprofessional resource aid, Laureen Wentz was an aide in Paul Banks Elementary School’s preschool. Although originally intimidated by the age difference of the students, Wentz said, “I adore this age. … They’re independent and they advocate for themselves like nobody’s business.”
She also has discovered an unexpected exchange between giving and receiving.
“The amount of respect and loyalty these kids show me personally and to us as a school inspires me,” said Wentz.
“They know they’re wanted, that they matter, that their voice is heard. Even if we don’t agree, they at least know their voice is heard.”
Shanna Demlow and her husband, Josh, moved to Alaska from Montana last summer after accepting jobs on the peninsula. Demlow is Flex’s new social studies and special education teacher. Her husband teaches math at Ninilchik School.
“I feel like Flex is a little gem within the district,” said Demlow.
“There’s so much possibility for one-on-one with the students and to really get to know them and their needs.”
To teachers considering Flex, Demlow said, “If you’re open to a new way of teaching and interacting with students, this is a great place to do that.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com.
Homer Flex High School
Principal: Karen Wessel
Location: 4122 Ben Walters Lane
• Of 501 Alaska schools rated by the Alaska School Performance Index, Homer Flex received a three-star score of 68.78.
• Homer Flex is 1 of 149 schools in the state to receive a three-star rating.
• Homer Flex’s score is 402nd highest in the state.
• Homer Flex is one of seven three-star schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
• Homer Flex’s score is 34th highest of the 43 KPBSD schools.