Schools superintendent: Student test scores high, graduation rate too low

It was “school” day at the Homer Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon on Tuesday. 

Dr. Steve Atwater, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent, gave an update on the district, an important thing to do since borough taxes fund the district, but most of the borough’s population is between 45 and 54 years of age, older than most parents of K-12 students.

“You have people living in the borough paying taxes, but when you don’t have children in schools, it’s important to have a sense of the schools doing a good job,” said Atwater.

Of the total number of school-age children in the borough, 8,800 are enrolled in KPBSD, with 1,200 additional children not enrolled in district schools. Some of those in private schools, such as Cook Inlet Academy, and some in home school programs offered by other districts exist within KPBSD. “That’s 1,200 at large that don’t attend our schools,” said Atwater, pointing to the continued decline of district enrollment. “We used to have 10,500.”

A large kindergarten class offers some hope. “We are optimistic that the cycle will come back around and we’ll continue to see a lot of little guys,” said Atwater.

In terms of how KPBSD students are performing on state tests, Atwater said reading proficiency scores are about 10 percent above those of students elsewhere in Alaska. In science proficiency, KPBSD students score about 15 percent higher than students in other districts.

“We can consistently say we out perform the state, which is good,” said Atwater.

On the southern Kenai Peninsula, Atwater pointed to high scores from Chapman School.

“They have a level of poverty that is high. Whenever you see impoverished kids do well, they deserve lots of kudos. They’re really smoking. That’s really, really good,” said Atwater.

Other schools noted by Atwater for high assessment scores were Susan B. English School in Seldovia and West Homer Elementary School. He also pointed to the three schools at the head of Kachemak Bay: Kachemak Selo, Razdolna and Voznesenka.

“They specifically don’t speak English at home, so they come to our schools bilingual,” said Atwater. “The fact that 90 percent at Kachemak Selo are reading proficient, I think is great.” 

One area where the district is “not as good as we want to be” is its high school graduation rate.

“We are generally about 78 percent,” said Atwater. “I think we can do better.” 

Beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, the state adopted a star rating system for schools, a five-star rating being the highest. While two Homer schools achieved five-star status — West Homer Elementary and Homer Middle School — Atwater pointed to problems with the system. For example, Paul Banks Elementary School, a K-2 school, received three stars.

“But those kids don’t take the test so the only way they’re measured is by attendance,” said Atwater. ‘That’s not fair because that’s a very good school.”

A current proposal within the Legislature to move away from star ratings in favor of letter ratings, A through F, is an approach Atwater said he did not favor.

The school district’s revenue comes from multiple sources: 67 percent from the state, 29 percent from the borough, 4 percent from reserves and other sources. Borough funding comes from sales tax and property tax.

“Every time you pay sales tax, every dime goes to the school district,” said Atwater. “That’s a good deal because we’ve all been here in July and know there’s people here in July that don’t live here, but they pay taxes. At Fred Meyer in July, in Seward in July, in Homer in July. That’s a lot of dollars in sales tax going straight into the school district. It’s a good thing for the school district because local people aren’t bearing the whole burden of that.”

In terms of property tax contributions to the school district, Atwater said borough residents pay 4.5 mills in property tax and the school district uses about 2.2 mills. Using the example of a house assessed at $200,000, 2.2 mills would be $440 or less than $1.21 a day.

Atwater said some changes have been made to reduce the amount the district is using from reserve. One change, increasing class sizes, will result in the need for about 10 less teachers. A savings of about $250,000 will be realized when Homer schools switch to natural gas.

During a question and answer period, Atwater was asked for details about an program between the district and Kenai Peninsula College.

“We’ve been able to reach an agreement with KPC that our (high school) juniors will be able to take advantage of Jump Start,” said Atwater of a program through which high school students can take classes for college credit at a reduced rate with tuition subsidized by the borough. Originally, the program was only for high school seniors.

Also at the chamber meeting, Mercedes Becker, a Homer High School senior, was honored as “student of the month” an honor bestowed by the chamber and McDonalds. Dena Cunningham, who, along with husband Scott, is the local owner of McDonalds.

Becker was introduced by HHS Principal Doug Waclawski.

“If she ends up a black belt-wearing naturalist, don’t be surprised,” said Waclawski, drawing attention to the three summers Becker has interned with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and the 10 years she has studied karate. 

Becker has had a cumulative grade-point average of 3.67. She plans to study science at Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.