Editor’s note: This article is the second of a five-part series spotlighting conditions in Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools. A bond package on the Oct. 4 municipal election ballot would fund 10 projects affecting 13 borough schools to address some of the district’s infrastructure issues.
It’s not uncommon to find Soldotna Montessori Charter School’s 165 kindergarten through sixth grade students working in the halls. In the school building, which is attached to Soldotna Elementary School, students compete with Montessori materials and with conflicting school schedules for space.
That could change, however, through a bond package up for consideration next month, which would move the school to a place with more space.
The relocation of Soldotna Montessori, along with River City Academy and Connections Homeschool, to the currently vacant Soldotna Prep School building is one of 10 projects outlined in a $65.5 million school improvement bond package that Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election. KPBSD’s district office would also move to Soldotna Prep. As part of that consolidation, the Soldotna Elementary School building — constructed in 1962 with four subsequent additions — would be demolished and rebuilt.
The Soldotna Prep consolidation project and Soldotna Elementary reconstruction project combined would cost about $40 million. That’s by far the most expensive project in the bond package and reflects about 61% of the total $65.5 price tag.
The district last fall identified $420 million worth of maintenance, including $166 million worth of “critical needs.” Many of the projects represent deferred maintenance, or projects that have been put off for an extended period of time. The project list would affect 13 of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s 42 schools.
Soldotna Montessori was recognized last year as a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. Representing just one of just 325 schools nationwide — and the only one from Alaska — Soldotna Montessori Charter School Principal John DeVolld last November journeyed to Washington, D.C., to accept the award on the school’s behalf. The school was recognized as an exemplary high performing school.
Per Soldotna Montessori’s website, the school offers two three-year curricula, to primary and intermediate students. The Montessori practices emphasized by the school include multi-age classrooms, hands-on learning using special materials, field studies, student investigation and research, community service and global understanding, among others.
DeVolld said last week that the additional space granted to Soldotna Montessori if the bond passes would provide a less cramped learning environment for students and give the school the opportunity to expand.
Because Soldotna Montessori shares a building with Soldotna Elementary School, DeVolld said the schools have to work around the needs of each other when it comes to scheduling activities like playground and gym use. It also means student pickup and drop-off times are more crowded.
“We get all of our folks out in about seven minutes, but we’ll have a (line) of cars that goes out and starts hitting Beemun’s (Variety),” DeVolld said. “We try and keep that moving quickly, but just the location is a challenge.”
In coordinating with Soldotna Elementary School, DeVolld said communication is key — particularly when it comes to the gym space. Soldotna Montessori’s day, for example, tends to be structured around when they can use the shared gym space, where DeVolld said lunch time blocks can get tight.
It’s those time and space limitations, DeVolld said, that would be alleviated by Soldotna Montessori’s relocation to the Soldotna Prep School building if the bond is passed.
“I believe we will have more autonomy with how we use that space,” DeVolld said. “It’ll give us some flexibility to deliver instruction in a way that suits our Montessori practice and so that’s something to look forward to.”
As a Montessori school, the needs of the school differ from those of other schools that serve the same grade levels. For example, students use Montessori materials for learning. DeVolld described those materials as “manipulative” and said they can take up a lot of space. He’s taken to storing materials at his house when they run out of room in the school building.
“Special materials encourage a hands-on approach to new concepts,” the school website says. “Students are encouraged to work at their own pace and pursue personal interests within the scope of the curriculum. These prepared environments allow students to take responsibility for their own learning, giving them the opportunity to become increasingly able to work independently.”
Those materials include, for example, math mats which can run between 8 and 10 feet long and require students to lay out bead chains and put down marker points.
“What our teachers will do is they’ll take the material and they’ll have it out at the beginning of the year, because that’s where students are ready to interact with that material,” DeVolld said. “Then as time goes by, they need to put that material away. We have limited — in this space — storage for being able to handle our materials.”
When teachers and students run out of space in their classrooms, they move into overflow space, like the hallways, to accommodate their needs. That proved particularly challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, DeVolld said, when they needed to find even more space to accommodate 6-feet social distancing.
DeVolld said the space available at Soldotna Prep, in addition to allowing more storage and less crowded classrooms, could potentially make Montessori curricula available to more KPBSD students. Enrollment at Soldotna Montessori currently operates on a lottery system. DeVolld said that, for the last three years, the lottery has received interest from enough students to fill two kindergarten classes.
“We are turning away interested families because we don’t have space,” DeVolld said. “I don’t know if (the Soldotna Prep) building will allow for that growth — I anticipate it could — but that would be a huge benefit to the families in the community that want another (school) choice,” DeVolld said. “ … Having additional space gives us an opportunity to potentially grow.”
In pitching such a specific project to voters who may not engage with Soldotna Montessori on a regular basis, DeVolld said the implications of the bond package as a whole are greater than any one school.
“These buildings age and they need maintenance and they need upkeep,” DeVolld said. “I think our district sees that, I think our schools notice and see that, and I think our community at large wants schools and buildings and places that they can be proud of.”
More information about the school improvement bond up for consideration next month can be found on the Kenai Peninsula Borough website at kpb.us/mayor/prop2.