Tustumena Elementary School may be the only elementary school in Alaska teaching karate this winter.
The class was one of about a dozen options offered for the kindergarten through sixth-grade school’s 174 students through the School Enrichment Model program the school is trying out this fall. In small groups called “clusters,” the students are able to learn about a particular skill or craft and produce something by the end of three two-hour sessions this week.
Some of the sessions include making birdhouses, watercolor painting, soap-making and wrestling. The school’s teachers or community members who volunteer their skills lead all of the sessions, said Doug Hayman, Tustumena’s principal.
“This is what all teachers want to be able to do, to teach what they’re good at,” Hayman said. “This year, we’re developing it, and we’ll learn from this week. We’ll take what worked and what didn’t work and learn from it and make it work next time.”
Hayman said he first encountered the model when he taught in Port Angeles, Washington and also saw it in Connecticut. The Tustumena Elementary School’s site council suggested the iteration at the school last spring. Since then, the school’s staff polled every student on their top three choices for the course topics, narrowed down the options, organized curricula and set aside three afternoons this week to launch the program.
Although the community members contributed their time pro bono, the school administrators used some of the funds they received through the energy rebate program — money the school is refunded based on its energy use — to purchase the supplies and pay the other expenses for the program.
Hayman said he sees potential in it for the future. Some of the options presented by the students weren’t possible because of time, logistics or the lack of an expert to teach them. What works in Connecticut may not work in Kasilof simply because of resources, he said.
“We live out of town, and the kids, sometimes what they get here is what they get,” Hayman said. “What we had to do was take that idea of providing enrichment for kids and turn it into what worked for Tustumena. The idea of kids getting to choose what they wanted to learn about and getting experts in the field is not unique — that’s the School Enrichment Model.”
It also fits within the culture fostered at Tustumena. When Hayman enters a room, students wave and whisper “Hi, Mr. Hayman” before he waves in return and motions for them to pay attention. Most of the staff has been at Tustumena for many years, and the discipline system is part of the culture enough that teachers and other staff do not have to worry about kids getting out of control when they are learning karate or wrestling, Hayman said.
“I was a little worried about karate, because when I think karate, I think ‘Hi-yah.’ We have an atmosphere that when an adult says, ‘This is the way to do it,’ they respect that,” Hayman said. “It’s easy to correct here, and it usually doesn’t happen in the first place, but when it does, we say, ‘This is what we need to do differently,’ and do it. We don’t ever intend to punish the kids, especially with this, because they’re that interested.”
The School Enrichment Model program launched on Monday will continue on Dec. 3 and Dec. 4. The program may encourage better attendance, too, Hayman said — if the students are engaged in a particular topic, they won’t want to miss the next two class periods with that topic.
For the teachers, being able to offer another kind of class amid talks of budget cuts is encouraging, Hayman said.
“This is how Tustumena is — the teachers are focused on the kids,” Hayman said. “These enrichment clusters are just the beginning. After these, they’ll have more to write about, more to do research on. It’ll just grow exponentially.”