In October 2016, parents took notice when the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced cutbacks due to declining dollars from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Specifically, it meant a change in busing schedules beginning with the 2017-2018 school year, resulting in changing start and stop times for 10 southern peninsula schools.
Families were left scratching their heads over students’ bus and school schedules, parents’ work responsibilities, and increased after-school hours.
“Families were straight-up panicking,” said Kurt P. Leffler, father of a kindergartener and also head coach at K-Bay Martial Athletics.
Unlike the central peninsula’s two-tier busing system — pairs of schools sharing one set of buses and having start times one hour apart to allow time for drivers to make both routes — the southern peninsula has had a one-tier system that required more buses. A two-tier system would allow Homer area schools to reduce 10 bus routes to five and the five buses shared by Ninilchik Elementary and High School and Anchor Point’s Chapman School would be reduced to three. The expected savings: $664,223.
Presented with options to make the two-tier busing system work, Homer area parents, school staff, school board members and district administrators developed a schedule for elementary schools to begin and end about an hour before middle and high school students. The later start-stop times for middle and high school students is in keeping with research pointing to the 8-10 hours of sleep needed by teens. The two-tier busing system for the southern peninsula was approved by the school board in July.
To help connect family, bus and school schedules, Leffler joined forces with representatives of other youth organizations to create the K-Bay Community Youth & Activities Coalition.
“We started this effort last spring, right after school closed, and we met a couple of times over the summer,” said Leffler.
The community was invited to take advantage of the coalition’s efforts at the Youth After School Activities and Program event at the Homer High School commons on Aug. 16. Hannah Gustafson, coordinator of MAPP (Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships of the Southern Kenai Peninsula, welcomed youngsters, parents and grandparents with a directory of organizations and agencies offering activities designed with the new school schedule in mind. Coalition participants answered questions, listened to parents’ concerns and provided activity sign-up sheets.
“I think the agencies in town are excited about collaborations and seeing how their offerings compliment and coordinate one another’s,” said Gustafson. “As in all things, it takes many to find a solution and a working system.”
For the Kozloski family, the event was a welcome to Homer. Formerly from New York and recently assigned to Homer with the U.S. Coast Guard, the event was a one-stop overview of after-school offerings.
Fifth-grader Elliott Greet talked to Leffler about K-Bay Martial Athletics’ new after-school program, while Greet’s mother, Laura, described how she had to adjust her work schedule to accommodate her son’s new school schedule.
Megan Lurus, whose son Ethan attends Homer Middle School, son Leto attends Fireweed Academy, and daughter Jasmine attends West Homer Elementary School, expressed appreciation for an employer that has allowed flexibility so she can be with her children until they get on the bus in the morning.
“It will be a little different at first, but I think it will all work out, with more time in the evening for homework for the little ones,” said Lurus.
Gustafson said she was aware that each family’s situation is unique.
“The objective is to get information to our community members so that people can know what opportunities and programs are available and get community members connected,” she said. “The more we can get together and have conversations, the greater the ideas and solutions.”
Tia Pietsch, owner of Harbor School of Music and Dance, and Rachel Barton, the school’s office administrator, were among those participating in K-Bay Community Youth & Activities Coalition. Pietsch has four children and Barton has two. Both families homeschool through the Kenai Peninsula School District’s Connections program and will be impacted if their youngsters participate in arts, sports and education programs offered at district schools.
“We need parents to know about the Coalition and to provide some encouragement regarding what they really want,” said Barton. “Anything that supports families in Homer so children of all ages have safe, supportive, education, active and fun opportunities we both want to encourage.”
As a direct response, HSMD has created an after school program that includes movement and arts classes and a half hour of homework help. New instructors also have been hired to fill the need.
“We used to hire our older teen-aged students to assist around the school with younger students. For some high school students, the HSMD was their first job and it gave them a chance to develop a lot of useful skills other jobs can’t,” said Pietsch. “That won’t be as possible anymore as they are now still in school during our peak hours.”
Affordable childcare remains an ongoing problem “for just about everyone who can’t rely on a family member to care for their child while they work,” said Barton. Toward that end, South Peninsula Hospital has taken a step in identifying what’s available.
“Our work is not specific to the school start time changes. This was often a subject at employee forums, our town-hall type staff meetings, so Honora Drew, ultrasound technologist, started pulling people together and formed a committee as she was seeing firsthand how it impacted staff,” said Derotha Ferraro, South Peninsula Hospital’s director of public relations.
The survey to assess childcare needs was open to all SPH employees and took place from July to August. Plans are to share the information internally, as well as a list of licensed childcare providers, prices and availability. The committee also has plans “to eventually reach out, communicate and work with other local agencies to see if our needs are similar and if there is a way to work together on solutions,” Ferraro said.
“I’m of the opinion this is a public safety issue,” said Leffler of providing opportunities for area families. “This needs to be a community effort. We all live here, have children or are attached to children. Instead of an issue, we need to turn this into a solution.”
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at email@example.com.