Category Archives: schools

Fishing for cool learning — Aquatic Education Program puts kids in touch with salmon

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Lacey Mathes, from Soldotna Elementary School, concentrates on catching a fish during an ice-fishing event on Sport Lake, which took place Feb 17 and18 as part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education Program.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Lacey Mathes, from Soldotna Elementary School, concentrates on catching a fish during an ice-fishing event on Sport Lake, which took place Feb 17 and18 as part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education Program.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

The morning sun still hung low on the horizon, not yet giving off much warmth but casting an orange glow on the blue armor of ice still encasing the 70 acres of Sport Lake in Soldotna. In the 24-degree air, plumes of warm air swirled around the mass of excited kids, but their breath, visible as it was, didn’t hold their attention, even though, on occasion, excitement caused them to hold it entirely.

Clutched in their mitten-clad hands, tiny rods dropped lines beaded with ice into holes augured through the ice. In the water below, a small cocktail shrimp on a hook was bobbed just off the lake bottom. This stationary, repetitive, no-guarantees activity held the full attention of the students — all 750 of them from 19 schools and home-schooled programs.

The annual ice fishing event, held Feb. 17 and 18 this year, was part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education Program. It also serves as a seasonal bookend to the much broader Salmon in the Classroom program, which began in the fall when these same kids stood streamside at the Anchor River to learn how the life of some salmon ends and begins for others.

“They learned about the salmon life cycle, spawning and were exposed to how we do egg takes. They then took those eggs back to their classrooms to watch and study them as they develop and grow,” said Jenny Cope, a fisheries biologist from the Soldotna Fish and Game office.

For the last month and a half, Cope has been visiting participating schools and conducting salmon dissections to continue with the ichthyological education.

“This teaches them about the anatomy of fish and the different functions of their organs,” she said.

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Budget cuts will hit classes — School district expects to learn to do with less

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Years of budget cutting and deficit spending have left the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District with no easy answers for how to avoid impacting instruction next year.

Behind door No. 1 — hope for a little more, or at least the same level of funding from the Legislature as last year, which is not a sure bet, given the state’s increasingly dismal budget prospects in the face of low oil revenues.

Behind door No. 2 — pull more money from its savings to cover shortfalls. But after four years of deficit spending, the district’s general fund account is not as robust as it once was, and there doesn’t appear to be any immediate turnaround of the state’s fiscal fortune on the horizon.

Door No. 3 is more budget cuts. After cutting over $1.2 million two years ago and over $1.3 million last year, there are no more relatively easy cuts to make.

“This isn’t the first year we’ve seen problems coming,” said Dave Jones, assistant superintendent of instructional support. “We’ve tried to make cuts as far from the classroom as we can to try to protect instruction. We’ve been at it now for two years, this will be the third year, so the things that are away from classrooms that we can cut are pretty much gone and unfortunately we’re going to have to cut in the classroom.”

In November, the school board decided to pull no more than $1.3 million from savings for next year’s budget and set a preliminary budget that cuts just about $4.6 million, leaving itself some wiggle room in case state and local funding are reduced.

The biggest chunk of that is 25.65 full-time-equivalent teachers, one counselor and two school administrator positions, to the tune of $2.5 million. Jones said that 12 of those teacher positions were already slated for reduction. They were added last year thinking school enrollments would be higher than they ended up being. The rest are coming from reductions in pupil-teacher ratios, meaning bigger classes. Kindergarten classes won’t be affected, but pupil-teacher ratio changes will be applied across all other grade levels and schools across the district.

Supplies, travel, technical, software and equipment at the district office level are reduced $415,000. District office is also taking a cut of 5.26 positions. Jones said they hope to achieve those reductions by not filling vacancies from retirements and people moving.

“They’ve looked at what departments were added to, if the things that were added can go back away,” Jones said. “A lot of people looking at, ‘OK, here’s what we have, here’s what they do, what can we do without? Can we not replace that position and consolidate duties?”

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Seeking help for Selo — Tiny Kachemak Bay community needs new school facility, but at what cost?

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

In a fiscal climate of cutbacks and reined-in spending, Gov. Walker’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 does still include a big-ticket capital project on the Kenai Peninsula — $10.8 million for building a new school at Kachemak Selo.

The budget still has to go through the Legislature, but the fact that it’s even in the governor’s budget is good news for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the tiny community at the head of Kachemak Bay, which struggles to educate the school’s just under 60 students in inadequate and deteriorating leased buildings. The project tops the statewide school construction needs list.

But when the school district’s capital projects priority list — with K-Selo at the top — came before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly last week, the project almost didn’t make its way on to the Legislature.

Assemblyman Brent Johnson said he had considerable heartburn about the estimated $16 million price tag for the new school and the fact that the state funding would only cover a little over $10 million of the cost. That would obligate the borough to come up with the rest. He proposed amending the school district’s capital projects wish list to remove the K-Selo project before sending it along to the Legislature.

“To build the school, it’s over $250,000 per student. And the bottom line is I just don’t think that either the state or the borough can afford to build the school at that price,” Johnson said.

Assembly President Blaine Gilman said that modifying the school district’s priority list would be unprecedented, but that he was not comfortable with the possibility of having to come up with the extra money.

“We don’t have it in our general fund, we don’t have it in the school district’s general fund. And so we’ll be in the situation, either we’ll reject the money from the state, not accept it, or we’ll have to put it out for a bond. And a bond issue will not pass for this school, in my opinion,” Gilman said.

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‘The Orchestra Rocks’ on a roll — Kenai Peninsula concerts get national distinction

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Artistic Director Tammy Vollom-Matturro rehearses for the annual Link Up concert with fourth-graders at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai on Thursday.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Artistic Director Tammy Vollom-Matturro rehearses for the annual Link Up concert with fourth-graders at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai on Thursday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Step aside, Carnegie Hall. The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s Link Up program took center stage.

“It is a very education, fun concert. Every year we seem to do a little bit more and more. This year we’ve got 10 schools participating, which us the most ever,” said Tammy Vollom-Matturro, artistic director for the orchestra and coordinator for the Link Up concerts in Homer on Friday and Kenai on Saturday.

The program is a collaboration with Kenai Peninsula Borough schools, with students in third, fourth and fifth grades performing live onstage with the orchestra.

Link Up is put together by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, which provides the music, teacher guides, student materials and a slideshow to be played during the concert. Partner orchestras and schools across the country and around the world participate, including a giant concert at Carnegie Hall itself, which usually kicks off the program.

Except for this year, where the honor went to the Kenai Peninsula.

“I got a phone call from a lady from Carnegie Hall and she said, ‘You guys are the world premiere of The Orchestra Rocks.’ And I went, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, we usually premier the concerts in Carnegie Hall first.’ But they love what the Kenai Peninsula does with the Link Up program and they’re letting us premiere it first,” Vollom-Matturro said.

The orchestra also recently received the Alaska Music Advocate of the Year Award from the Alaska Music Educators Association, in part for the Link Up program.

“We support music education. It’s in our mission statement, to do education, so we do a lot of stuff that includes kids,” Vollom-Matturro said.

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Kenai school gets Blue Ribbon — Kaleidoscope recognized for excellence

Photo courtesy of Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science. Students at Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science visit a high tunnel to learn practical science lessons. The school was recently honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School.

Photo courtesy of Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science. Students at Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science visit a high tunnel to learn practical science lessons. The school was recently honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

When Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science opened as a kindergarten through sixth-grade charter school in 2004, the teachers hoped to offer the best educational practices and instruction they could to the 88 students that inaugural year. Since then the school’s enrollment has grown to 252 students, but the commitment to excellence remains the same, evidenced by Kaleidoscope receiving a National Blue Ribbon School award.

“To me, this validates the hard work that goes into making the right choices for kids,” said Robin Dahlman, principal at Kaleidoscope for the past five years.

The U.S. Department of Education recognizes outstanding schools annually, selecting ones in which, “Their leaders not only articulate a vision of excellence and hold everyone to high standards, they stay close to the real action of teaching and learning. Mutual respect and trust run deep in their cultures. Faculty are supported by mentoring and professional development and have time to coordinate their work. Data from many sources drive adaptations to support every student. Families and educators work together in trust.”

This year, 285 public and 50 private schools were honored during the award ceremony earlier this month. Kaleidoscope was one of only three schools in Alaska to receive the honor, and one of only 15 charter schools recognized nationally. Dahlman, along with Kelli Stroh and Nicole Shelden, two teachers at the school since its founding, flew to Washington, D.C., last week to accept the award.

“The past 11 years have been a privilege to embark on such an exciting journey of teaching through the arts and sciences,” Stroh said. “Our school is very honored to be recognized for thinking outside the box. The award is not only for our school but the entire Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Our school district was just put on the national map for school of excellence.”

Schools are usually recognized in one of two categories — closing a wide gap between low- and high-performing students, or, as with Kaleidoscope, exemplary high performance over a five-year period.

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Harvesting knowledge — Schools cultivate learning opportunities with gardening projects

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Kindergartener Jaxson Bush is assisted by sixth-grader Emilie Hinz while digging up potatoes from a garden at Tustumena Elementary School on Friday. The garden was planted to give kids hands-on learning experiences with science and math, as well as teaching them about the origins of the food they eat.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Kindergartener Jaxson Bush is assisted by sixth-grader Emilie Hinz while digging up potatoes from a garden at Tustumena Elementary School on Friday. The garden was planted to give kids hands-on learning experiences with science and math, as well as teaching them about the origins of the food they eat.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Outside his classroom at Tustumena Elementary, sixth-grader Sam Booker dropped to his knees and began to claw at the soft, rich earth. His glasses slid to the end of his nose and dirt got under his nails, caked to his hands and stained the sleeves of his fleece jacket.

He was digging with the zeal of someone doing a task they want to do, rather than are told to do, but this was no recess game. It was part of a science lesson, learning in the most hands-on way possible. As the blond-haired boy plucked a small, round, red spud from the ground, a smile grew across his freckled face.

“I got one,” he shouted. Almost simultaneously, kids around him echoed similar sentiments as they, too, pulled up potatoes — reds, purples and Yukon golds in various lumpy shapes and sizes.

“It’s hard to imagine that, three years ago, there was no fence, no garden, nothing,” said sixth-grade teacher Shonia Werner.

The potato patch is in a 60-by-40-foot area adjacent to the school.

The kids planted it at the end of last school year, as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat program. The aim was to make school grounds more hospitable to wildlife while simultaneously providing a place for children to learn about and connect with nature.

Now in its second full year, the program is operating at Kaleidoscope School of Art and Sciences in Kenai, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary.

Part of the Tustumena habitat plot was planted with 200 felt-leaf willows, a hearty variety that’s often used for stream-bank restoration projects. Dan Funk, Schoolyard Habitat coordinator with the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, did the bulk of the willow planting, hoping the school could eventually sell clippings as a fundraiser, while the kids could learn about science, nature and ecology in the interim.

Wanting to ripen the area for learning opportunities while the willows matured, instructors at the school also decided to plant a small garden, primarily made up of potato varieties due to their ability to thrive with minimal care during the summer break. It was clear from questions asked by this batch of sixth-graders this fall that they were in need of some food-chain knowledge.

“Are those the potatoes?” said one boy, pointing to the willow trees when the class first got outside. But by the end of the day, every student, from the sixth-graders down to the kindergarteners, knew what a potato plant looked like, that potatoes grew underground rather than on a bush like fruit, and a little about the annual cycle of planting, growing and harvesting.

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Gates to the future — Nikiski senior’s drive earns full ride scholarship

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Loepz. Nikiski High School senior Tiffany Lopez shows off her letter of recognition as a Gates Millennia Scholar with teacher Laura Niemczyk. The scholarship covers all costs for Lopez to pursue postsecondary schooling, all the way through graduate school.

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Loepz. Nikiski High School senior Tiffany Lopez shows off her letter of recognition as a Gates Millennia Scholar with teacher Laura Niemczyk. The scholarship covers all costs for Lopez to pursue postsecondary schooling, all the way through graduate school.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For Tiffany Lopez, there was already plenty of evidence of persistence, optimism and work ethic. The Nikiski High School senior has wanted to be a vet since she was 3 years old and she’s been determined to make it happen.

She’s a solidly good student, not an effortless achiever, and works hard for the grades she gets, says teacher Laura Niemczyk, and that’s on top of working 30 hours a week because she pitches in to the family’s finances.

Lopez didn’t have money for college but had been figuring out a way to get an education, whether by staying in Alaska for school or going to a less expensive school out of state.

Niemczyk thinks she can accomplish anything. No matter what blocks her path, Lopez keeps finding a way forward.

“She has persistence. She can overcome any challenge that’s been thrown at her, she never lets something that happens in her own life hold her back, she sees it as a challenge and a way to move forward and to make her a stronger person. And so she’s taken any tragedy or adversity she’s had and turned it into a positive for her,” Niemczyk said.

Just look at her email address for proof.

“My name, ‘Tiffany, dot v-e-t, dot the number two, dot the lowercase letter b.’ So it reads, ‘Tiffany vet to be,’” Lopez said.

Or, for a slightly more obvious example, look at her certificate of being a Gates Millennial Scholar, which carries with it a full-ride scholarship for 10 years of post-secondary schooling.

“It’s kind of the Cadillac of all scholarships that are out there,” Niemczyk said. “This is the only one of its kind that will guarantee kids that much financial aid at this point in their life.”

The scholarship was started through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to support minority students of limited financial means, who excel in academics and leadership through participation in community service, extracurricular or other activities. One thousand recipients are chosen each year, from over 50,000 applying. And Lopez, from Nikiski, is one of them.

“I am over-the-moon excited about this,” Niemczyk said. “I told her from the very beginning that she could do this and I have complete faith in it. And I don’t think she started to believe it until we actually uploaded her application and she looked at all of her essays and she read them and went, ‘Holy cow, look at what I’ve compiled over the last five months. This is amazing.’ And then she started to get hopeful.”

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