Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion
An arch marks the entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas on Oct. 10 in Nikolaevsk. In rear, cars are parked in front of a building that has been used this school year as a makeshift classroom for families who are part of a home-school cooperative.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion An arch marks the entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas on Oct. 10 in Nikolaevsk. In rear, cars are parked in front of a building that has been used this school year as a makeshift classroom for families who are part of a home-school cooperative.

School board rejects Nikolaevsk charter school application

Charter organizers say they plan to appeal that decision to the State of Alaska

Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education last week narrowly rejected a charter application that sought to open a new K-12 school in Nikolaevsk, about 10 miles east of Anchor Point.

The vote capped more than a year of work by both the Nikolaevsk community and the school district to find solutions to concerns residents have about the village’s existing school. Families have, since at least October 2022, been pursuing a charter school as a new school option for students.

Charter schools differ from other public schools in that they are allowed to choose their own curriculum, which may differ from that of the school district. Charter schools are also overseen by an academic policy committee, composed of school parents and staff, that is tasked with overseeing the school’s mission and has the authority to hire and fire the school principal.

Currently, four charter schools operate under the umbrella of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District: Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai, Fireweed Academy in Homer, Kaleidoscope School in Kenai, and Soldotna Montessori Charter School in Soldotna. The proposed Nikolaevsk Charter School would have been the fifth.

Between KPBSD’s school board and charter oversight committee, three formal meetings were held in October to review the Nikolaevsk Charter Application. Spearheaded by Chandra Caffroy and Mariah Kerrone, both moms of school-aged children in Nikolaevsk, the proposed school was billed as one that would be tailored to the unique needs of the community.

Unique needs

The community of Nikolaevsk is accessed by North Fork Road, which branches off from the Sterling Highway in Anchor Point and rejoins it near Diamond Ridge. The census-designated place is home to about 330 people across 78 households, and is currently served by the K-12 Nikolaevsk School.

During the current school year, however, a church down the street has rivaled the schoolhouse. A building just a few steps from the entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas has housed students participating in a local home-school cooperative, which started this year. Inside the classroom space on a day this October, cards showing letters of the Russian alphabet hung on the wall near a photo collage of the church congregation and art projects were left out to dry on a folding table.

On the evening of Oct. 10, the room also served as a community hall, where about 20 community members gathered to hear updates from Caffroy and Kerrone on the status of the charter application. That application includes the names of 34 parents who have expressed their intent to enroll their children in the proposed Nikolaevsk Charter School.

Since Nikolaevsk residents first addressed the KPBSD school board about a charter school last year, declining enrollment at the community’s existing K-12 school, concerns about school employees, a lack of student transportation and deviation from practices observed by Nikolaevsk’s Russian Old Believer community have all been cited as among the community’s top concerns.

“Our school cannot thrive without addressing the specific concerns and needs within our community,” APC member Juliana McConnell told school board members last week. “It requires an educational program that is designed for and around the people that reside there.”

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said the district has worked to address community concerns about the K-12 Nikolaevsk school. The school site council, he said, has re-adopted a calendar that observes Russian Orthodox holidays for the current school year and the district made available milk alternatives for Orthodox fasts.

Holland said KPBSD has also arranged for students enrolled in Connections, the district’s home-school program, to use classrooms inside the existing K-12 Nikolaevsk School building. He estimates that 21 students formerly part of the co-op have since enrolled in Connections.

Transportation of Nikolaevsk students to and from school remains a service the district is unable to provide.

KPBSD Director of Planning and Operations Kevin Lyon said busing was eliminated from Nikolaevsk’s attendance area in 2017 and was decided both as a cost-savings measure and because of the risk associated with travel in the area. Further, Lyon said there are multiple KPBSD schools and communities not served by district busing.

Among the risks are the 17% grade encountered shortly after turning off of North Fork Road onto Nikolaevsk Road and soft road shoulders in the residential parts of Nikolaevsk’s attendance area that do not allow school buses to turn around in case of emergency. An activity bus, which travels only on paved roads from Anchor Point, still serves Nikolaevsk.

Lyon said other school districts in Alaska have similar grade limits for roads traveled by school buses. Within the Anchorage School District, for example, school buses may not travel on roads with a grade greater than 10%; even roads with grades between 6% and 10%, the Anchorage School District’s policy says, must first be evaluated to determine whether or not school buses can travel safely.

“We have a lot of schools that don’t have transportation due to either road conditions or just (being) smaller communities,” Lyon told the board and charter organizers during last week’s meeting. “Right now, transportation is really dictated on budget. The state funding formula has not changed since 2015 and so we’ve even skinnied up routes here to reduce the impact on a school’s budget.”

Those concerns and others about how the charter school would operate were just some of the topics probed over nearly 10 hours of meetings between members of the Nikolaevsk Charter School Academic Policy Committee and the school district in October.

Charter review

This year’s consideration of the Nikolaevsk Charter application came roughly a year after the last time the group presented the school district with a charter application. The school board did not vote on last year’s application because the Nikolaevsk group missed the deadline by which they were required to inform the school district of their intent to start a charter.

KPBSD policies require groups to state that intent by Aug. 1 of the year before the school would open. The application must be submitted by Oct. 1.

This year, the Nikolaevsk group submitted their intent to create a charter in March and their application on Sept. 1. Alaska Statute then says school districts have 60 days to review the application and vote on whether or not to send it on to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

The initial 89-page Nikolaevsk Charter application was first considered by KPBSD’s Charter School Oversight Committee during an Oct. 9 meeting. That group is made up of three members of the KPBSD school board, KPBSD’s charter school principals, KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent and KPBSD Finance Director Liz Hayes.

The full KPBSD Board of Education then considered the application during an Oct. 16 work session, and again during a special board meeting on Oct. 23, where they voted on the application.

Across the meetings, school board members and district administration asked questions of the Academic Policy Committee members and provided feedback on everything from the charter’s budget, planned curriculum use, to facility use, to formatting and typos within the charter document.

Early in the process, APC members outlined their vision for a charter school that would offer project-based learning and International Baccalaureate diplomas, as well as Russian immersion classes, a pre-kindergarten program and better agricultural education, among other things. The school would have also shared a principal and building with the existing Nikolaevsk K-12 school.

By the end of the final review meeting on Oct. 23, the charter group had dropped pre-K from its scope of services, decided to hire their own principal and had more clearly identified the ways use of a Montessori curriculum for elementary students would meet the standards outlined by the Alaska Reads Act.

That legislation, which the charter group told board members during the Oct. 16 meeting they were unfamiliar with, was signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year and implemented new guidelines aimed at ensuring all Alaska students can read at grade level by the time they finish third grade.

Board members respond

Multiple board members expressed concerns about the scope of services being proposed for the Nikolaevsk Charter School during its first year.

“For me, doing Montessori, International Baccalaureate and project-based (learning) — it’s very difficult to combine everything together,” said Penny Vadla, who represents Soldotna. “It feels like you’re trying to do too much to get to a goal. You have a good goal.”

Board member Virginia Morgan, who represents the eastern peninsula, had similar thoughts, saying that she’s seen a “lack of conviction” by the charter group when it comes to curriculum.

“With the exception of international baccalaureate, it appears to me since last Monday and Friday that all the other curriculums have changed, so I’m still trying to catch up,” Morgan said. “That’s an area I really feel like needs to be more further developed and discussed amongst the APC.”

School board members also expressed concerns about the proposed Nikolaevsk Charter School budget as described in the group’s application. As originally submitted, the budget described roughly $1.3 million worth of expenditures for the 2024-2025 school year. In actuality, KPBSD estimates that the charter school’s annual operating budget would be closer to $951,000.

To resolve that discrepancy, the charter group eliminated from its budget a special education teacher position, which it estimated would save them about $110,000. The group also reduced one full-time teaching position to part-time, reduced the amount spent on school materials and eliminated funding for transportation.

The charter group proposed funding the school’s special education teaching position with federal Title I funds. The district’s Title I funds are made available through federal grants for students attending schools with high poverty rates. School board members said this may not be a solution. KPBSD’s existing K-12 school in Nikolaevsk qualifies for Title I funding, however, any new school would need to restart that eligibility process, meaning those funds would not be immediately available for a new school.

“Especially if (Nikolaevsk Charter School) does become THE school, you have to be able to provide special education services,” KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland told the group.

KPBSD’s other charter school principals were also given the opportunity to provide input on the Nikolaevsk application.

John DeVolld, the principal of Soldotna Montessori Charter School, addressed Nikolaevsk’s plans to implement a Montessori program, saying that he and other Alaska Montessori schools have trouble recruiting teachers who have Montessori certifications. Such certifications take between one and two years to achieve, according to the American Montessori Society.

“I think the thing that we’re all up against is that certification of a Montessori teacher,” DeVolld said. “ … I think we’re always striving to be a full-fledged Montessori school but it is a challenge just making sure that we’re able to gain teachers that have that certification.”

Dawn Grimm, the principal of Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science, responded to assertions by the Nikolaevsk group that the district did not assist them throughout the application process. Grimm said her school’s charter was “years in the making” and follows a curriculum that was designed by the same people who wrote the charter.

“Every single thing that we did to create our charter school was done on our own by the teachers and the staff and the community and it’s just like this,” Grimm said. “When you look at the history of it, the parents are the ones who kind of drove that as well and then we had to sell that to the school board without any help as well. So I know how intimidating it is.”

Some board members questioned whether they could conditionally approve the document so that their concerns were addressed, while still allowing it to be reviewed by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

“Obviously you don’t want to sign something that you don’t have agreement on financially, so that’s a no,” said board member Matt Morse. “But if we can come up with that and amend it so that it does work, I’m of the opinion, you know, that if the state wants to tell them no, let the state tell them no.”

The board successfully amended the charter to make its approval contingent on the negotiation of a memorandum of agreement for use of the existing building, and to remove the section saying the school’s special education instructor would be paid for with Title I funding. Both amendments ended up being moot, however, because the board killed the application by a vote of 5-4. Board members Morse, Patti Truesdell, Kelley Cizek and Dianne MacRae voted in favor.

With the board’s decision not to approve the application, charter organizers can appeal the decision to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, Deena Bishop. Once the commissioner hears the appeal, she could either send it back to the school board, approve it and send it to the state board of education or uphold the denial.

Next steps

In the wake of the board’s denial last week, Caffroy and Kerrone told the Clarion via email that they plan to appeal the decision to the state.

“We have a strong application,” they wrote.

They and other Nikolaevsk families decided to enroll their students in Connections, KPBSD’s home-school program, so that they can access district facilities in Nikolaevsk, but say they are still planning to open Nikolaevsk Charter as a K-12, Montessori and IB school with a Russian immersion program next fall.

In reflecting on the charter process as a whole, Caffroy and Kerrone said they thought review of their application was needlessly rushed and an “abuse of process” that highlighted the need for clearer KPBSD policies regarding charter schools.

“If the will of the (school) board had been to get kids in the building, they would have found a way,” Kerrone and Caffroy said. “In this instance, our charter school isn’t optional. It isn’t extra. It’s necessary.”

Holland said he didn’t set the dates on which the charter oversight committee met, but that he believes they were set such that they complied with committee members’ schedules and so newly elected school board members would be present for the meetings. Two new school board members were elected during the Oct. 3 election and were sworn in on Oct. 16.

Ultimately, Kerrone and Caffroy said they think Nikolaevsk has lost trust in the district that it will take time to rebuild.

“When our children have a safe environment, overseen by an APC of parents, to attend school, that is when trust can begin to be rebuilt,” they wrote. “This community and this group of parents showed with their willingness to come back to the table every time they were invited, that they wanted to present solutions to every concern and question this board had and it wasn’t enough.”

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

From left: Nikolaevsk charter school academic policy committee members Mariah Kerrone, Chandra Caffroy and Juliana McConnell present their updated charter application to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education on Monay, Oct. 23, 2023 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

From left: Nikolaevsk charter school academic policy committee members Mariah Kerrone, Chandra Caffroy and Juliana McConnell present their updated charter application to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education on Monay, Oct. 23, 2023 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Community members gather in a building part of the Church of St. Nicholas, out of which a school cooperative runs, during a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Nikolaevsk, Alaska. In rear, cars are parked in front of a building that has been used this school year as a makeshift classroom for families who are part of a home-school cooperative. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Community members gather in a building part of the Church of St. Nicholas, out of which a school cooperative runs, during a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Nikolaevsk, Alaska. In rear, cars are parked in front of a building that has been used this school year as a makeshift classroom for families who are part of a home-school cooperative. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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