McNeil Canyon: grounded in community

When funding for a new school at McNeil Canyon was needed in 1981, the McNeil School Steering Committee created a marketing plan that included distribution of 20,000 brochures throughout the peninsula.

“It boils down to us selling what we consider a basic need for this community,” the group’s spokesperson, Larry Holman, told the Homer News at the time.

Arguments for the school noted on the brochure included overcrowding at East Homer Elementary, since renamed Paul Banks Elementary School; East End Road youngsters enduring as much as 2.5 hours of time on the bus; and 153 K-8 grade students and 120 preschoolers living between miles 5 and 20 of East End Road.

With nine school construction projects on the October 1981 ballot, McNeil was one of three to get voters’ blessing. The school opened for the 1983-1984 school year with 77 students.

“We have enthusiastic kids. And I have never seen so many parents so interested and so excited,” said Diane Borgman, the school’s first principal, in a Homer News story, Aug. 25, 1983.

This year, the school has 122 students in grades K-6. Near its entrance is a plaque proclaiming it a 2004 “Blue Ribbon School” under the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” program. In 2013, McNeil was named a “high progress” school in the “Alaska Reward Schools” program.

Pete Swanson, principal of McNeil since 2000, was named the state’s “National Distinguished Principal” by the Alaska Association of Elementary School Principals in 2013. In 2007, teacher Bill Noomah was named “Teacher of the Year.” Former McNeil teacher Sheryl Sotelo’s work with students in the area of science resulted in her receiving the “2002 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching” and a $10,000 Toyota Tapestry grant. 

In 2010, a stop at McNeil was included in the agenda for a “Growing Arts Education Leaders” retreat, a project of the Alaska Arts Education Consortium. Christine Crooks, AAEC executive director, said at the time that McNeil teacher Debbie Piper’s championing of the arts was one of the reasons McNeil was highlighted. Piper’s efforts to integrate art into subjects such as math and science also was recognized by the Homer Council of the Arts, who named Piper “Arts Educator” in HCOA’s 2010 “Homer Council on the Arts Annual Arts Awards.”

The list of awards the school and its faculty have received goes on and on. As does the community support the school has had from its beginning.

“Both my kids went there. My son, Ivan, was in the first graduating class,” said Derek Stonorov. “Both my granddaughters go there now, Zoe in the sixth grade and Hannah in the fourth. We’ve been involved from the get-go.”

That involvement includes actually helping select Borgman. 

“No one was naïve enough to think we were actually hiring the principal, but we came up with recommendations and interviewed everyone that wanted to be principal,” said Stonorov. “No one (in the district) had ever done that before.”  

Stonorov calls McNeil “the best elementary school anywhere,” pointing to the “teachers, the principal and the fact that it has an active community council.” 

This is the fifth year Zen Kelly has served on McNeil’s site council. His daughter, Mya, is currently in the sixth grade.

“For me, (site council) is a way I can participate in the school. I have a busy work schedule, so it allows me to feel like I have something to do with the school and provide input,” said Kelly, who describes McNeil as “a gem of a school.”

“I love their concentration on arts and how they include the fine arts in all of their teaching styles,” said Kelly.

The dedication of staff and teachers also is valued by Kelly.

“They just always seem to give 110 percent to the kids and everything is very kid-centric. It’s always oriented to what is best for the child’s learning and I really appreciate that,” he said. 

Amy Budge began teaching at McNeil in 1985. 

“I had been subbing before that, since it opened in 1983,” said Budge, who currently teaches K-6 special education. She has five paraprofessionals who work with her. Some of her students are the children of former students. Budge’s two daughters, Siobhan and Alanna, also attended McNeil and are graduates of Homer High School.

“From its beginning under Diane Borgman there was a dedication to balancing the arts with the academics. There was a strong emphasis on writing. We also work hard to create and maintain a spirit of community among parents and staff,” said Budge, also noting the connection that develops between McNeil faculty and staff and the students.

“Every teacher and staff person knows every child and those relationships are a foundation for learning,” said Budge. “Students who are now adults and parents still feel a part of their elementary school.”

Swanson came to McNeil from California, by way of a two-year stop in Sitka, in search of a place that offered his family surroundings similar to what he enjoyed as a youngster in Northern California, complete with hunting, fishing and boating.  He also was seeking a situation similar to the one where his father had been a principal. 

“This has been a really good spot for all of us, the Swanson family, in terms of finding that place,” said Swanson. “I really believe small schools are better at educating the whole child, a community of people that know the child personally, building families, probably having their own children involved in the system.” 

Swanson’s three children — Karl, now in the Navy; Kristen, now enrolled at Point Loma Nazarene University in California; and Claire, now a student at Homer Middle School — have attended McNeil. This is the sixth year his wife, Lenore, has taught music, physical education, social studies and science at McNeil. 

The school has a total of 12 certified teachers. Add in non-certified and support positions and there are “about 22 people that actually work here,” said Swanson.

Like Stonorov, Kelly and Budge, Swanson recognized the unified commitment of McNeil Canyon Elementary School’s faculty and staff and the surrounding community. 

“I’ve always been impressed with the level of commitment that the staff and the community have to the kids,” said Swanson, “This community has as far right as you can go politically and as far left, but when they come to school, those differences are never a part of the conversation. Never, ever. I think that’s pretty phenomenal.”

McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.

McNeil Canyon Elementary School


Pete Swanson


52188 East End Road


122 in grades K-6

Of 501 Alaska schools rated by the Alaska School Performance Index, McNeil Canyon received a four-star ASPI score of 92.24.

• 198 schools in the state received a four-star rating;

• McNeil Canyon’s score is the 126th highest in the state;

• McNeil Canyon is one of 23 four-star schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District;

• McNeil Canyon’s score is the 16th highest score of the 43 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.