School reconfiguration is not on the table for the upcoming school year, said Kodiak Island Borough School District Superintendent Larry LeDoux to a packed room of parents and community members, following a board of education discussion and public hearing on the topic.
The reconfiguration plan proposes to rearrange North Star Elementary, East Elementary and Main Elementary schools, so that students will be divided into separate schools for kindergarten and first grade, second and third grades, and fourth and fifth grades. Currently, all three elementary schools are K-5 and students are divided into schools according to where they live.
LeDoux said the idea for reconfiguration first arose as a means to cut costs following a state threat to cut education spending. However, the state cuts were later rescinded. The district administration continued to pursue the possibility of reconfiguration, with the goals of improving student achievement, ensuring quality teachers and balancing the needs of students across the district.
LeDoux noted that students in Kodiak achieve under proficiency standards in math and language arts on state exams. Additionally, it is difficult to hire and retain teachers in Kodiak, with almost half of all current teachers employed for less than four years. Lastly, the district has seen a sharp spike in special needs students, which are not distributed evenly across Kodiak schools.
The district initially considered reconfiguring Kodiak schools as early as next year, with a board of education vote on the topic scheduled for January. But after hearing public comment on the subject, LeDoux said reconfiguration would not be under consideration for the upcoming school year. LeDoux will present his recommendations on Jan. 6.
“I don’t have any intention to make a recommendation for reconfiguration to happen next year,” LeDoux said. “There’s clearly not enough time to do what we need to do to make it happen. Do I believe that this kind of reconfiguration would lead to successful kids? Yes. Do I believe it’s good for Kodiak? I’m not so sure.”
A team comprised of a school administrator, parent and teachers traveled to the Chicago area in November to visit two school districts that underwent recent reconfiguration. The team reported on their experience to the board of education during a work session Monday, highlighting the importance of a smooth transition to successful reconfiguration.
The team includes Angie Chervenak, Main Elementary principal; Betsy Lund, a parent of children enrolled in North Star; Chris Polum, fifth-grade teacher at North Star Elementary; Sarah Powers, fourth-grade teacher at Main Elementary; Anne Oliver, kindergarten teacher at Main Elementary; and Ingrid Ruotsalainen, teacher at East Elementary. Every teacher on the team is a graduate of Kodiak schools.
“Overall, we see both pros and cons,” Chervenak said. “There was no big take-away.”
In one district the goal of reconfiguration had been to reduce racial and ethnic tension and provide equity in education to all students in the district. The transition reduced racial tensions in some cases, while magnifying them in others. School members also reported that the transition process took longer than expected, spanning multiple years.
During their Chicago visits, the Kodiak team spoke to administrators, teachers and students about the impacts of reconfiguration. They said the feedback about reconfiguration was not negative, but they noted that district superintendents and administrators were present during their conversations with teachers, which may have affected the teachers’ candor.
“I do think that some people were not as candid,” Chervenak said.
The presentation was followed by an opportunity for public comment. Sixteen parents and community members spoke, many expressing ambivalence about reconfiguration. Numerous parents noted the lack of representation of Filipino families in the audience, which numbered more than 50 community members. Students of Filipino descent make up 73% of the Main Elementary student body.
“Is this what you see when you look out into the audience tonight? Do you see all demographics represented here?” asked a parent.
According to Main Elementary School secretary Danae McKinney, who spoke at the meeting, the school made an effort to distribute information about reconfiguration to parents in Tagalog.
“I believe that our school has done a very good job of putting this out to parents,” she said. “However, I’ve been told that sometimes other cultures don’t feel as free to participate in these kinds of discussions … If we want to reach them and ask their opinions, we may have to do in a different form than we are doing in this room.”
McKinney also noted that some parents work evening shifts and are unable to attend evening meetings. The board of education work session, which included discussion of numerous items other than reconfiguration, ended after 10 p.m.
“A couple of parents at Main Elementary voiced concerns (about reconfiguration) during our conferences, but they said they wouldn’t be here tonight because they had to work,” she said. “I’d like to see how we could address those families in a way that is most convenient to them.”
McKinney said that for students that immigrate to Kodiak from the Philippines or other counties, mentorship and help from older students is critical for their success.
“They are relying on their community to help their children get used to the United States and to our school system here, so I am concerned that if we break these families up, they won’t have the support their children need to transition to school life here in Kodiak,” she said.
Parents expressed concern over the impact reconfiguration would have on their children. In many cases, siblings would not be able to attend schools together, and would lose mentorship from older students.
“Earthquakes are something that needs to be considered where we live. What happens if we have an emergency?” asked a parent of two students in North Star Elementary. “This new system would force me to make the decision — do I pick up my 5-year-old first, or my 7-year old? That’s a decision I shouldn’t have to make.”
She added that she is currently a volunteer at North Star, and the new system would force her to choose in which school to volunteer.
Robert Graham said he bought a house near North Star Elementary with the intention of sending his children to that school, together.
“To me, family is more important than anything,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want his children to attend different schools. “The money you would spend on this new program — put it into the old one.”
Following community comments, board members said they will need more information to make a decision for or against reconfiguration. But Duncan Fields, president of the board of education, urged LeDoux to make a recommendation on whether or not to recommend reconfiguration.
“We can’t continue to spend resources for an indefinite period of time,” Fields said.
LeDoux said the administration will continue to look at what reconfiguration would look like in Kodiak, as far as transitioning, instituting a new busing system, and other logistical concerns. But he said he would also examine how to improve outcomes for Kodiak students without reconfiguration.
“What you may hear next time is a non-recommendation to move forward in this direction,” LeDoux said. “If we determine that we think it’s important to explore deeply, what you’ll see is a revised timeline.” Such a timeline would include additional public meetings in each of the elementary schools, as well as publishing the findings of logistical explorations.
“Some people assume that whenever we start talking about something, we’ve already made the decision and we’re just going to through the process of pretending to get input,” LeDoux said. “That was never the case.”
While many voiced trepidation about reconfiguration, numerous community members said they would be in favor of transitioning sixth grade students from Kodiak Middle School to elementary schools. One of the parents in favor of such a move was Kodiak High School Principal Mel LeVan.
“As a parent, I would support exploring moving sixth grade out of the middle school,” LeVan said. “It would positively impact the middle school as we try to get those kids mentally wanting to be in school.”
Borough Assembly Member Scott Arndt also voiced support for moving sixth graders out of the middle school during the meeting on Monday. He urged the district to complete the transfer by the upcoming school year.
According to LeDoux, the board of education has requested a logistical study of moving the sixth grade to elementary schools. The administration has completed the study, but has not yet shared the findings with principals in the district.
“Theoretically it would work, assuming we didn’t have any growth,” LeDoux said. He said Main Elementary presents the primary challenge, because “it has a lot of little rooms all over the building” that are used for special needs students. “I don’t think they would want to surrender any of those to the sixth grade.”