After a brief holiday hiatus, the first Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Luncheon of the new year took place on Wednesday and featured a presentation from the school district’s superintendent as well as announcements of the students of the quarter.
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent John O’Brien presented insight into the school district’s priorities, which includes the addition of several new counselors in the district’s elementary schools.
O’Brien noted that the district is about halfway through their five-year strategic plan, which was first implemented in 2017. The mission of the five-year plan is to “Empower all learners to positively shape their future,” he said.
“It’s an important opportunity to focus all of our efforts … to make sure that as a district, by 2022, these students that you see in this room are prepared, not for the world you and I joined when we graduated from school, but for the 21st century and the new job market and the new reality these students will face,” O’Brien said.
One important aspect of the five-year plan, O’Brien said, is the introduction of personalized learning, an approach to education that gives students more autonomy to decide what they want to learn and to pursue the things they are passionate about.
The development of personalized learning programs in the peninsula schools is ongoing, O’Brien said, and more information about personalized learning on the peninsula can be found at plkpbsd.org.
Another focus area for the school district has been in the area of social and emotional learning.
“Unfortunately, we do have many of our students who don’t have perfect home lives,” O’Brien said. “They may have families that have experienced a tremendous amount of trauma, whether it’s something as simple as divorce or drug addiction within the family. Perhaps they have a parent who has died or they’re dealing with some other sort of adverse experience.”
The focus on social and emotional learning, which teaches kids resilience and how to process trauma and other emotional challenges in healthy ways, stems from the steady increase in both suicide risk assessments and referrals by school district staff to the Office of Children’s Services for suspected neglect or abuse.
Last year, according to the presentation, the school district handled 258 OCS referrals and 204 suicide risk assessments.
In 2013 the district handled 153 OCS referrals and just 47 suicide risk assessments.
O’Brien pointed to the prevalence of opioid addiction in the community as well as a decline in socioeconomic status for many families as two of the main drivers of both of these figures.
“That’s something that I am extremely concerned about as superintendent,” O’Brien said. “Our strategic plan over the next year, year and a half, will explicitly deal with social and emotional learning.”
To that end, the school district has appropriated $2.2 million from their undesignated general fund for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget that includes funding for six elementary school counselors.
O’Brien said that during his 15 years working in the school district there haven’t been any counselors on the elementary school level, so making that change has been a priority for him since he took over as interim superintendent last year.
O’Brien said that he is “very optimistic” about this year’s budget for the school district.
O’Brien said that Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce had promised to fund education at the maximum amount possible in this year’s budget for the borough.
In addition, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget for the state includes flat funding of education without any cuts, which O’Brien said was a stark contrast from last year.
“To be in a position this year, going into the budget cycle and as we prepare our budget, knowing in advance what we can count on for funding is so important,” O’Brien said.
“Not having to rally the troops, so to speak, and have to pack the assembly chambers to advocate on behalf of education funding, will allow us to focus our energies on things that are, in my opinion, more important.”