Clayton Holland is ready to get to work.
That’s what the new superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District made clear Thursday, when he sat down with the Clarion in his corner office at the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building in Soldotna to talk about his plans for the district.
Holland is a former high school special education resource teacher, assistant football coach and assistant track coach at Kenai Central High School and has also worked for the Lower Yukon School District and at Republic Middle School in Republic, Missouri.
He holds a bachelor’s in elementary education with a special education endorsement from Missouri State University and received a master’s in education in educational leadership from the University of Alaska Anchorage. He previously served as the KPBSD director, assistant director and program coordinator of KPBSD’s Student Support Services.
Holland said Thursday at his office in the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building that his decision to pursue education as a career stemmed from his own positive experiences in school.
“Growing up in Eagle River, I had a series of great teachers — people who are icons of the community there now,” Holland said. “My track and field coach … was a special education teacher, and how he carried himself with the kids [and] with us as athletes really left a big impression on me and got my brain thinking about being a special educator.”
Holland said he’d describe his leadership style as “situational” and emphasized the importance of people taking ownership in their work.
“I think every situation dictates a different leadership style — that’s that situational piece,” Holland said. “You have to have the flexibility. I really believed in the relationship piece: relationship-building with folks and I want the people who work with me to do the same thing.”
Holland said his goals for the upcoming school year include expanding virtual learning options to more schools in the district and improving the relationship between the school district and the community.
Specifically, Holland said it is one of the district’s goals to make sure students have equal educational opportunities even if they are in a rural community.
“When we talk about 42 schools, how do we offer something in Hope or Cooper Landing or Tyonek that a kid at Soldotna High School can have access to?” Holland said. “I think every parent wants their kid to have all the opportunities they can have.”
When it comes to healing district relationships, Holland said the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the district, both internally and externally. The 2020-2021 school year saw KPBSD administration and some community members clash over the district’s COVID-19 mitigation policies, which some said went too far. Most district students alternated between attending classes in person and attending classes remotely as the rate of COVID-19 transmission in their communities ebbed and flowed.
“I don’t want to put the (Board of Education) in this position to approve everything we’re doing (with) our mitigation plan,” Holland said. “They took a real beating this last year but it’s gonna be on me (this year).”
As of Thursday, COVID-19 cases were surging around Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula, with the borough’s central, southern and eastern regions all at “high risk” level, while COVID-19 vaccination rates among people 12 and older stagnated. The state and borough were also determined to be at high risk level.
The district announced last month that it would no longer be requiring masks for students and staff, per guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has said people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks indoors.
In reflecting on how the district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, Holland said the initial shift from in-person learning to remote learning was more seamless than in other parts of the state because of the district’s existing technological infrastructure and how district staff were able to use technology to teach, but that a lot of the district community were impacted by a loss of human-to-human connection.
“When our staff knew maybe somebody was struggling and (weren’t) able to be there the same way that they were able to previously it was a hard aspect for a lot of people,” Holland said.
Many of the COVID-19 mitigation protocols implemented by the district last school year will continue into this school year, including 3 feet of social distance between students, bipolar ionization disinfection of air through buildings’ HVAC systems and a continuation of hygiene etiquette, such as frequent hand washing. The capacity of schools to test students for COVID-19 will also be expanded with funds KPBSD received via a grant from the CDC.
The district intends to let masks be optional into the school year, Holland said, noting that no COVID cases were reported during the district’s summer programming, where masks weren’t required.
Another factor to consider this year, Holland said, is access to COVID-19 vaccines.
“We have a lot in place … but (we’re) really focusing on options and choice,” Holland said. “As far as the vaccine goes, for those 12 and older, there’s been a parent choice for your own child and for an adult there’s been a choice on that. I am highly encouraging vaccinations, but they’re not required.”
Ultimately, Holland said the district’s goal this year is to keep schools open.
“Our buildings, our teachers … our staff are ready for students to be in the building and we’re committed to keeping our kids there,” Holland said. “We’re not going to be shutting our buildings down.”
As implemented during the 2020-2021 school year, Holland said the district will not shift an entire region to 100% remote learning at one time, and will only move to remote learning if there are no staff available to substitute in.
“I realize that there’s no way to make everybody happy and that’s OK,” Holland said. “I’m still going to do my best for every single person here.”
One of the biggest projects both KPBSD and the borough are working on is in the rural community of Kachemak Selo.
Efforts to build new school facilities in Kachemak Selo have been underway for years. The school, which had 31 students enrolled on May 19 according to district data, currently operates out of three separate buildings, which the district says are in disrepair and out of code compliance. KPBSD Planning and Operations Director Kevin Lyon has said previously that, for example, people are not supposed to be inside of the school buildings when there is snow on the roofs, one of which is bowing inward.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce has repeatedly said that he thinks the borough needs to build a school in Kachemak Selo, but that he does not believe $15 million is needed for the project. KPBSD has requested $5.39 million from the borough for the project, which reflects a 35% local match the borough would need to provide in order to receive $10,010,000 from the state for the project.
Pierce and former KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien sent a joint letter to Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, earlier this year in which they asked the state to move the $10 million previously awarded to the project from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to the Department of Community, Commerce and Economic Development. Doing so would eliminate the local match requirement. Pierce said Tuesday that Micciche attempted to move the funds during the Alaska Legislature’s regular session, but that there wasn’t a lot of support for the move and that negotiations are ongoing.
Holland said Thursday that in getting the problem solved and in addressing the district’s other infrastructure needs, he wants the district to become more in sync with the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that our buildings are owned by the borough and they’re maintained by the borough,” Holland said. “I always say the borough has done a great job of responding to those immediate needs … for us to align and make sure we’re on board with long-term capital projects (and) long-term maintenance issues is really the first step.”
Ultimately, Holland said he and his team at the district plan to take things one day at a time and have a common goal of wanting the district to be the best in the state.
“We want the Kenai to be the best district period (and) the best district in the state of Alaska, and not just with our key performance indicators or graduation rates or testing rates, but overall,” Holland said. “From the longevity of our staff, our recruitment process, the quality of our professional development — and I want our public to know this.”
That will start with this school year.
“I’m excited to get this year going,” Holland said.