By McKibben Jackinsky
In her second year as principal of Homer Middle School, Kari Dendurent considers herself “so lucky” to be where she is.
“This school’s awesome,” said Dendurent, who was assistant principal at Houston High school, Palmer High School and at a high school and middle school in Florida before coming to Homer at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.
With less than 200 seventh- and eighth-graders, HMS strives to offer something for everyone. As an example, Dendurent pointed to an “enrichment period” that follows lunch.
“After they eat, they can go into the library, the gym, other teachers’ classrooms and get assistance,” said Dendurent. “We also have clubs going on so students can learn French, we have Japanese classes, we have engineering classes.”
Add to that student council, band, soccer, cross-country, wrestling, basketball and hockey. There also are students participating in community events such as the annual holiday production of “The Nutcracker.”
“There’s kids going all over the place,” said Dendurent. “We’ve asked parents to let us know (where they’re going) so we can go out and support them.”
The school’s faculty is another star in its crown.
“What makes HMS stand out is the caliber of teachers and their dedication,” said Dendurent.
A site council that includes school personnel, parents, a community member and a student representative serves as Dendurent’s advisory board, and an open-door policy helps Dendurent develop close ties with parents.
Then there are the students, who, at this point in their lives, are “figuring out their own individuality … fun-loving, happy middle school students at probably the hardest point of growing up. Going from being elementary students to being high school students,” said Dendurent.
Math teacher Dan Calhoun pointed to a “tremendous level of respect” at Homer Middle School, “professional respect for colleagues and leadership, and a tremendous amount of respect for students, as well.”
Calhoun began teaching 27 years ago and spent the first four teaching sixth-grade before moving to middle school. After a lengthy leave of absence, Calhoun considers himself “fortunate to get a job back at the middle school.”
“I enjoy teaching students at this age. … If they know that you really care about them, then they really tend to care about school and doing well,” said Calhoun. “We are aware it’s a substantial change to come out of the elementary school model and into the middle school model. Understanding that, we know they need support in that transition and we want them to be as comfortable as they can be.”
After moving to Homer, Jennifer Booz went to then-science HMS teacher Hal Neace and told him she wanted his job. Neace told her she’d have to wait a few years until he retired. She now is in her sixth year teaching science at HMS.
“This was my dream job in Homer. I just absolutely adore the students,” said Booz.
Seventh grade ancient civilization teacher Dan Olson has been at HMS for seven years. Prior to that, he taught in Japan for four and a half years and, after completing graduate school at the University of Minnesota, met a human resource representative of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District at a job fair. Olson applied for the HMS job and has been here ever since.
“It’s better than I imagined,” he said. “I like the atmosphere. It’s friendly, small town and feels pretty inviting and warm to me. But at the same time teachers expect a lot from the kids and the kids, for the most part, rise to the expectation.”
Olson also is impressed with the amount of family involvement at HMS, as evidenced by participation in parent-teacher conferences and a recent “jam-packed” activity night.
“And did I say the staff is pretty awesome? That’s another reason why I’m here,” said Olson. “The kids are great and the staff is pretty top of the line.”
Seventh-grade language arts teacher Bonnie Jason noted the school’s “fabulous administrator,” describing Dendurent as someone “excited to be here, to try new things, someone who is super supportive of staff and loves the kids.”
Jason’s favorite part of teaching at Homer Middle School is “hanging out with kids” at a time when they are trying to “reinvent themselves, still very open to adults in their lives, but not needing quite as much nurturing as they need mentoring.”
For seventh-grader Talisa McKinley, whose father is in the U.S. Coast Guard, it’s her first year in HMS. She is on student council; her mother, Keyla, is on site council.
“This is actually one of the better schools I’ve gone to,” said Talisa. “There are good people, nice teachers that will actually take you in and not just think of you as different. And the students are pretty much the same as the teachers. They’re nice. They’ll be your friends.”
“Family friendly” is Keyla McKinley’s description of Homer Middle School. “The teachers and staff are amazing. … They’ve helped Talisa out instead of just letting her be by herself. They’ve been welcoming and I love that.”
Julie McCarron’s twin daughters are Homer Middle School eighth-graders. Her three older children also attended the school. Like McKinley, she described HMS as a “welcoming place.”
“The teachers and staff really seem to like working with that age group,” she said.
Anxious about her daughter entering middle school, Shannon McBride-Morin found site council a way to be involved in her daughter’s education and a “good way to know what’s going on in the school, with the kids, with the teachers and be supportive of education.”
She describes the school with the same word Dendurent used: awesome.
“The teachers are excellent and I really like the new principal,” said McBride-Morin. “She seems very problem-solving, solution-oriented, a good listener, working with families and kids. … There is a very good vibe over at the middle school.”
Looking toward the future, Dendurent said school goals include a specific increase in each student’s national percentile ranking for reading and math and increasing the community’s awareness of the school.
“We want people to feel welcome at Homer Middle School,” said Dendurent.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homer Middle School
Principal: Kari Dendurent
Location: 500 Sterling Highway
Students: 195 in grades 7-8
By the numbers:
• Of 501 Alaska schools rated by the Alaska School Performance Index, Homer Middle School received a four-star score of 90.10.
• Homer Middle is 1 of 198 schools in the state to receive a four-star rating.
• Homer Middle’s score is the 186th highest in the state.
• Homer Middle is 1 of 23 four-star schools in the Kenai Peninsula School District.
• Homer Middle’s score is 26th highest of the 43 KPBSD schools.