‘This state will lose us and generations of students after’

Amid education funding shortfalls, local students advocate for support

Fairness in school punishments. Limited student parking. The quality of school lunches.

Those are some of topics students in Luke Herman’s government class at Soldotna High School identified earlier this month as issues they’ve encountered while attending SoHi.

“Everyone who I’ve talked to, they really want longer passing periods,” one student volunteered. “I mean, especially if you have to come out to one of the portables or something like that, or if you have to stop at the bathroom. A lot of teachers can be really strict about tardies and that can really mess up your graduation plan if you get too many.”

Roughly 35 students gathered in the Soldotna High School Library Feb. 8 for Herman’s class. Usually, he teaches in one of the “portables” — mobile modular buildings — located on the western edge of the school property. Last week, though, Herman needed to accommodate a few extra students.

“I do have folks from last semester who really went above and beyond in trying to bring this stuff forward,” he said, introducing Nick Lopez, Jeren Nash, Caitlin Babcock, Charisma Watkins and JLee Webster.

For others in the class, the students were likely familiar faces. Nash is student body president, Watkins is a school-record-breaking swimmer and Webster regularly stars in school plays.

Per the class syllabus, Herman’s government class seeks to teach students both how and why the U.S. government and its institutions function by covering a wide range of topics that include voting, checks and balances, civil rights and liberties.

“It is my goal to have this class function as a medium to educate young adults on how the system that is present in our everyday lives not only functions on paper, but in a way useful to these students who are about to enter adulthood and should be prepared how it functions in practice,” the course description reads.

One component of the class requires students to complete projects called Student Development Committees. They spend the semester researching and gathering data on what they view as barriers to student success and development, then meet with local education leaders and create a way to engage the community about their selected topic.

Beyond their school accomplishments, Babcock, Lopez, Nash, Watkins and Webster also have a track record of advocating for student issues that have most recently included state funding for Alaska schools.

Nash last week called for school funding while testifying before the Alaska Senate Education Committee in Juneau. He, Watkins, Babcock and Webster all urged the KPBSD school board in December to continue lobbying for more money from Juneau.

For the students, school district funding shortfalls are not merely matters of dollars and cents, but rather the difference between whether they can or can’t take a specific class, whether they can continue pursuing their extracurricular passions and whether there are 30 students in their class or 25.

As state lawmakers in Juneau hash out the best way to pay for K-12 education — public education advocates want a meaningful increase to the amount of money the state gives districts per student, while others question the value of giving more money to an education system they say is broken — Lopez, Nash, Babcock, Watkins and Webster are just some of the many Alaska’s students speaking up.

The root problem

Watkins and Babcock remember struggling to get Soldotna’s pool scoreboard fixed last year.

The 2023 Northern Lights Conference, held in October, brought swimmers from Kenai, Homer, Seward, Palmer, Wasilla, Kodiak and Colony to Soldotna in the final faceoff before the state meet in Juneau. Both were worried when the school’s scoreboard broke at the end of the previous swim season.

Babcock helps manage Soldotna High School’s swim team and Watkins is a decorated swimmer — she’d go on to break a school record during the Northern Lights Conference and then her own record at state. The scoreboard was ultimately fixed in time for regionals, but both said the issue stuck with them as they were brainstorming school issues they wanted to research for Herman’s class.

“The pools and theaters, specifically the pools, are always on the chopping block every year,” Watkins said.

She’s referring to KPBSD’s annual budget talks. Facing a $13.1 million deficit last budget cycle, school board members considered cuts to school pool and theater staff as a cost-saving measure. The move would have shuttered both programs and drew fierce opposition from students and community members who argued the importance of extracurricular activities to student success and well-being.

KPBSD ultimately didn’t need to cut pools and theaters this year thanks to one-time funds approved by the Alaska Legislature, but the district is facing another budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, also about $13 million. The district has publicly called on the state to increase its per-student funding amount, called the base student allocation or BSA, and has urged peninsula residents, especially students, to do the same.

KPBSD school board member Virginia Morgan, who visited one of Herman’s government classes to speak with students, said during the school board’s Dec. 4, 2023, meeting that she encouraged the students to take their concerns to the school board and to state lawmakers.

“I also asked them to be sure to try and reach out to our state legislators because there is only so much we can do as a board,” Morgan said. “I know they want to hear from students, and student voices are so powerful … Sometimes when they hear from the adults, they think that we’re just fighting for our jobs, but they need to hear from you and how this really affects you.”

Among the five Soldotna High School students, there was an attitude of resigned determination — with a dash of cynicism — on the topic of students speaking up.

“It just gets exhausting after a certain point of time,” Babcock said. “It’s like, students keep having to advocate for a better education when the people who (are) supposed to provide that education don’t do their jobs to give it to them.”

Lopez agreed.

“I think legislators are relying on the fact that it’s taking so much effort for us to advocate,” he said. “They’re trying to wait us out.”

Lopez also studied school funding as part of his work in Herman’s class, although that wasn’t his original plan.

“As I went through more issues and more potential things that we could focus on, I found that to solve a lot of these issues we would need funding,” he said.

The exercise took him to a lot of other issues, notably teacher recruitment and retention, and how that was affecting his and other students’ academic opportunity at SoHi. There are a few reasons why that’s true.

KPBSD is not immune to teacher shortages that school districts around the country are facing, and the number of staff the school can hire is tied to enrollment — which is down when compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Lopez, for example, wanted to take Advanced Spanish, the next sequential Spanish language class after Spanish 1 and Spanish 2. That class, though, wasn’t offered during the 2022-2023 school year. Instead, SoHi offered four sections of Spanish 1 to accommodate the number of people who needed to take the class.

“I get why they had to do it, but it’s unfortunate that it had to come to that in order to provide for our population,” Lopez said.

Webster noted that the school alternates when it offers Physics and AP Chemistry to accommodate the number of students that need to take biology or regular chemistry.

“We don’t have enough teachers to be able to offer all of those courses,” she said.

Outgoing SoHi Principal Sarge Truesdell is tasked annually with creating the school’s “Master Schedule,” or roster of classes that will be offered in a given school year. To create that schedule, Truesdell draws from surveys distributed to students in the spring, on which they indicate the classes they plan to take or want to be available in the fall.

“Kids drive our schedule,” Truesdell said.

When crafting the master schedule, Truesdell says he tries to stay as close to the district PTR number — which determines how many full-time staff a school is allocated — as possible in deciding which classes will be offered. For the current fiscal year, the district allocates one full-time employee for roughly every 30 students in high schools serving grades nine through 12.

Not every class type draws the same level of interest, though, which sometimes means Truesdell may opt to offer an extra section of a class lots of students are interested in or are required to take, rather than a section of a class that is a higher level or with little interest.

Truesdell said he tries to stagger one-off courses, such as Advanced Placement, so that students aren’t forced to pick between one or the other.

“It’s like a big puzzle,” he said.

A school’s PTR is driven by how many students are expected to enroll in that school. If fewer students attend SoHi, the equation used by KPBSD says that school should have less staff. Enrollment at SoHi, Truesdell said, has been lower than expected.

This school year, for example, the district projected that 742 students would enroll at Soldotna High School, so it was staffed accordingly. The school’s actual enrollment, though, is around 650 students. That means the PTR for the current school year is good for small classes, but a lower enrollment projection for next year may limit the number of staff SoHi is able to employ.

Taking it to the state

The five students agreed that the current school funding debate is a state issue, not a local one.

Days after addressing his fellow students in the Soldotna High School library, Nash traveled to Juneau as part of the Alaska Association of School Boards’ legislative fly-in. He was joined by his dad, Shea Nash, the principal of River City Academy, as well as school board member Penny Vadla and Nikiski Middle/High School student Maggie Grenier, KPBSD’s student representative to the school board.

The group on Feb. 12 sat before members of the Senate Education Committee to advocate for a BSA increase.

“Funding schools is much, much larger than education,” Nash told senators. “It is for generations of Alaskans to come; we need to support our communities. I’m unable to directly affect the BSA increase, but I’m going to try my best to prepare myself for teaching with the resources that I have.”

Grenier shared similar thoughts, comparing education in Alaska to a tree that’s been pruned such that it’s now only a stump. What’s ultimately at stake when it comes to school funding, she said, are Alaska’s young people.

“This state will lose us and generations of students after,” Grenier said. “We are here because we want to contribute and give back to the communities that raised us. We are not asking for excess, but the essentials. There’s value in winning today. Every year (that) education suffers, this state loses the potential of our students.”

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, sits on the Senate Education Committee and has been a vocal supporter of an increase to the BSA. When he’s not writing laws in Juneau, Bjorkman teaches social studies at Nikiski Middle/High School. He reiterated that support last Monday after hearing testimony from delegations from around the state.

“More funding in the BSA means we have smaller class sizes,” Bjorkman said. “It means that each teacher and each educator is able to spend more time with their students so that they can develop meaningful relationships and get to know their kids and build that relationship in a meaningful way.”

Back in Soldotna, small class sizes are also a priority for students.

Lopez said low pay and minimal benefits combined with a large student population fails to attract staff. Students understand how large classes impact their education, he said.

“It’s less teachers for more students,” he said. “More students with a single teacher means that they can’t give attention to every single student as much as they could if those people have the proper distribution. So, it affects how we learn.”

Policymakers in Alaska disagree about the best way to hire and keep new K-12 educators. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has sponsored legislation that would pay tiered cash incentives to teachers. Others are calling for Alaska to return to a defined benefit, rather than 401k-style, retirement system.

In Alaska, there were about 7,400 public school teachers during the 2021-2022 school year. That’s according to data presented by Martin Lang, the chief human resources officer for the Anchorage School District, who presented to the Senate Education Committee last week. Of those, 22% — about 1,600 — left their positions, representing almost 25% of Alaska’s total teaching profession. About 966 teachers — 13% — left Alaska or the teaching profession entirely.

During the same school year, the University of Alaska system, across all campuses, only produced 153 teacher licensure graduates.

Both Nash and Webster plan to become teachers after graduating from Soldotna High School.

Nash will be attending Northern Arizona University but hasn’t yet settled on whether he’ll pursue secondary or elementary education. He recalled a recent opportunity he had to teach some elementary school students — they called him “Mr. Nash” and learned about the topics of the five senses and why imagery is important in storytelling.

“I read them a book and it was just super cool to see these kids so full of wonder,” he said. “They actually wanted to engage and it’s just, like, where did we go wrong?”

Webster said she wants to end up back at SoHi, teaching music education. She has doubts, though, about whether it’s the best career move. She’s good with kids and said she’s dedicated most of her life to music but worries about low pay and being able to handle student behavior.

“As somebody who comes from a childhood of financial instability and wondering where my next meal is going to come from, if I potentially have children, I don’t want to put them through that,” she said.

As it stands, Webster said she’ll probably end up studying astrophysics.

Babcock’s going to study nursing at Olivet Nazarene University and Watkins is headed to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to swim and study political science. Lopez was nominated by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in January to attend the U.S. Military Academy in New York, and said Thursday that he’s applied to West Point.

Not done yet

Even though the five students are no longer in Herman’s class, they say there is still work to be done.

While canvassing students, Babcock said, most didn’t know that they could attend and participate in school board meetings. Webster said public notice of school board meetings should be better noticed on the district and school’s websites.

“I just think it’s really significant that you can really see how people aren’t aware that they have this opportunity,” she said. “I wasn’t even aware that I could go into school board meetings until this year.”

Lopez worries that, even when students do speak up, they aren’t taken seriously, and Nash said local elected officials could be more engaged with the problems students are sounding alarm bells about — substance abuse, for example.

Nash’s project for Herman’s class focused on student mental health, which is something he said he’s struggled with for years. He’s found a community in extracurricular activities such as theater — he most recently played the Tin Woodsman to Webster’s Dorothy and Lopez’ Scarecrow in Soldotna High School’s adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The one thing that I’ve seen is everyone struggles with mental health,” he said. “When you have something that you can find common interests with other people, that really, really helps.”

Watkins questioned why the onus of advocacy is on students when KPBSD’s school board members have articulated what’s at stake for Kenai Peninsula Students.

“I think that something that most of them brought up to us, was that they won’t be listened to by the legislators and so it’s (students’) job,” Watkins said. “And it’s like, well, then that’s also a problem with the legislators. Like, what’s your deal? Why are you not — they’re speaking for us and you’re not going to listen to them? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Nash and Babcock said they think investment by more stakeholders in public education would make a big difference.

“We need to encourage parents in a way that makes them excited about seeing kids succeed,” Nash said.

Babcock agreed, saying that there are a lot of things school communities from around the Kenai Peninsula can learn from each other.

“I think if they actually learn about the BSA and how we haven’t been funded and how that’s affecting so many kids and their education, then I think they will start to understand why it’s so important for them to actually speak up about this stuff,” she said.

As of Tuesday, the fate of state funding for K-12 schools remained unclear. Dunleavy has already stated that he will veto any standalone BSA increase bill, and the House majority has shifted focus to an overhaul of Senate Bill 140. The current iteration of the bill would authorize lump sum payments for eligible teachers, change Alaska’s charter school process and fund school districts at the same level for students in correspondence programs, such as home-schools, as for brick-and-mortar students.

In the meantime, the torch has been passed at Soldotna High School. There’s a new group of students embarking on the same journey in Herman’s government class. For those students, the alums offered words of advice and a call to action.

“We need to vote because a lot of these school board members are going uncontested,” Webster told the class. “We are the change in the world and we just don’t realize it. There is a reason that a lot of politicians are wanting to raise the voting age. It’s because they realize that our generation is taking a stand.”

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Nick Lopez addresses students during Luke Herman’s government class at Soldotna High School on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Nick Lopez addresses students during Luke Herman’s government class at Soldotna High School on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Jeren Nash addresses students during Luke Herman’s government class at Soldotna High School on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Jeren Nash addresses students during Luke Herman’s government class at Soldotna High School on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Caitlin Babcock addresses students during Luke Herman’s government class at Soldotna High School on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Caitlin Babcock addresses students during Luke Herman’s government class at Soldotna High School on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)