The new semester offers more opportunities for students

Two Homer schools housed in the same building are looking for new ways to collaborate.

With the start of 2023, West Homer Elementary principal Eric Waltenbaugh and Fireweed Academy principal Kyle Darbonne both have an enhanced schedule for the new semester that they’re hoping will continue to increase student and faculty engagement opportunities.

“After the past three years of things shut down due to COVID, every semester we’re able to give back more, offer more activities to students and dig a little deeper into our instructional practice in across the building,” Waltenbaugh said.

Some of the things that are coming back this spring are the ski program, a chess program and a sixth grade band program. Staff at the school have been taking inventory on instruments available at the school and looking at what faculty can do to structure the program into the school schedule.

“Marge Dunn has spearheaded the return of band and Tina Moore and Emily Lamb, one of our new teachers, a speech pathologist, will participate in leading band, also. It’ll be a collaborative effort,” Waltenbaugh said. The start date for band will be Jan. 17 and it will just be available for sixth grade.

Another program started this fall was a Japanese Club offered by parent Megumi Beams. “The program was wildly successful; we had more than 40 students participate. The group has participated in multiple Zoom sessions with students in our sister city Hyogo, Japan. The kids also presented their work to the Homer City Council to show them what they’ve been working on,” Waltenbaugh said. Japanese Club will continue this spring. “It feels really good to be able to say ‘yes’ to people in the larger community who want to be able to offer programs,” he said.

The school is also looking into building more healthy personal habits: making attainable goals and being able to reflect on them. “This is a value to what is central to what we do at West Homer, by the time students leave here we want the student to be able to reflect on school goals, maybe making incremental steps towards achieving it, having an accountability buddy,” he said. For example, this year students set a reading goal this year of 21 million words as a school, an accomplishment they were able to celebrate schoolwide.

The West Homer Elementary Site Council (steering committee) has been working with the state on some of the issues regarding traffic congestion on the Sterling Highway at pickup and drop-off time. The state conducted a traffic study at Soundview and the Sterling Highway and are considering some options for how to relieve congestion, potentially adding a traffic light or a turn lane. “Our Site Council is really advocating for infrastructure changes related to this issue,” Waltenbaugh said.

Waltenbaugh wants to remind parents that they can always arrive early, park and walk up to the building. “Parents are also welcome to come into the building. This is another transition from COVID times, we want them to come in and get involved. The PTO has a lot going on right now so does the site council.” Parents can find information about those organizations on the West Homer Elementary website.

Kyle Darbonne is beginning his second semester as the Fireweed Academy principal. “The fall semester was just my first year here and I was more in absorbing mode, just drinking in feedback and all of the Fireweed-isms, trying to dig into the heart of what makes our community so special. And now I feel like this is a launching point where I am able to take some of that feedback and implement improvements directly,” he said. Some of those improvements include revisions to the schedule, bringing back more ‘artists in the schools’ than they were able to include in the fall semester, reimplementing a physical education course, creating more structured outside time and improving overall communication with parents. The school’s library has continued to make improvements with community donations and educators seeking new books to add to the existing collections and students will have more access to that this semester also.

The two schools, housed in the same Kenai Peninsula School District building, are creating more collaboration efforts to truly share the space. The morning Jan. 3 started with staff pot-luck, for example. “If we’re going to share each other’s space it’s important for us to be more connected to each other’s stories and participate across schools on common grounds because it’s a unique setting that doesn’t often exist between two different schools and it is an upside of this building model. It’s something kind of exciting,” Darbonne said. “My words for the semester are ‘growth’ and ‘action.’ Let’s take this transition year of Fireweed and make it something really beautiful for the whole community,” he said.

Emilie Springer can be reached at