‘Our school is taking a dive’: Nikolaevsk parents push for a charter school

a woman in a dress speaks into a microphone
Efrosinia Yakunin, a member of the charter’s planning group, testifies in front of the school board on Monday, Oct. 3. (Riley Board/KDLL)

In the community of Nikolaevsk, east of Anchor Point, mounting concerns and fluctuating enrollment have pushed a group of parents and community members to request that the town’s public school be dissolved and replaced by a charter school — by the start of the next academic year.

District administrators say they’re too late, but proponents of the plan say they’re tired of waiting for a response on concerns they’ve been voicing for years.

The isolated village of Nikolaevsk was founded by Russian Old Believers. Today, many of its residents still observe traditional Old Believer customs.

The community’s K-12 school is one of over 40 schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. But at a school board meeting Monday, parents said that relationship isn’t working anymore.

Efrosinia Yakunin, a member of the charter’s planning group, said the school no longer offers Russian language classes or gives students days off during the Russian Orthodox Holy Days, as it once did.

“My husband and I have two children that went back to school this fall. They are missing school on our holy days, because [it] is very important for us to rest on the Russian Orthodox to spend time with family,” Yakunin said.

Parents said they’re also worried about understaffing. The school has just one teacher and its principal, Matthew LaHue, divides his time between Nikolaevsk and the Ninilchik School — due to the district’s policy of splitting principals between schools with small enrollments. Other parents testified about a lack of transportation to the school, since the school currently has no bus route.

Those issues are both driving and stemming from low enrollment, which parent Marriah Kerrone said is a major issue.

“This is a problem that has been going on for well over 10 years. Our population since 2010 has increased. Our school is taking a dive,” she testified.

Last year, the school ended the year with around five students. This year, there are 29 — still much smaller than the school once was, even though Nikolaevsk’s population has grown.

Chandra Caffroy is one of the founding members of the charter, and a former student of the Nikolaevsk School.

Caffroy believes the school has broken its promises to the Old Believer communities it serves. She said she and a friend had the idea in September to create a charter school as a solution to the community’s complaints, which she said have been going unaddressed for nearly a decade.

Charter schools, like the one Caffroy is proposing, provide an alternative to a public school district’s offerings. Charter school enrollment nationally boomed during the pandemic as non-charter public school enrollment declined. As it stands, the Kenai district has four. According to the charter document, formally filed Monday, there are 71 students who would intend to enroll in the charter school in Nikolaevsk.

However, charter organizers have come up against a critical roadblock: The district requires charter groups to submit an application of intent on Aug. 1 of the year prior to the date by which they hope to start a school. The Nikolaevsk group missed this deadline by two months.

Caffroy said it feels hypocritical for the district to enforce deadlines when they’ve been slow to respond to issues at the school.

Superintendent Clayton Holland said while it’s too late for the charter group to start a school by next fall, he’s interested in working with the families to resolve the issues that inspired the charter.

“At this point, for next year, because we didn’t hit those dates, and because this is all very rushed, it’s not gonna happen for next year. I know that’s not the answer some people want to hear, but we really have to do that. That’s our obligation,” he said.

Holland also said the district is already working on addressing some of the complaints right now.

He said because enrollment is growing again, the district has posted another teaching position at the school — for an elementary education teacher — which has not yet been filled. Districts across Alaska have long struggled to recruit and retain teachers.

When it comes to enrollment, Holland said the district called or emailed every family that left the Nikolaevsk School over the course of the last academic year to ask about why they left. He said his administration learned many families left because of issues related to COVID-19. Holland said some families left for other reasons that he feels have since been addressed.

“I know there’s a strong desire to go back to what that school was at one time with enrollment, and we have that, too,” he said. “We’re interested in that, so I’m excited to work with families.”

Holland said Russian language classes were cut years ago due to declining enrollment and a lack of viable teacher candidates, and that the school no longer observes the Holy Days due to a small number of Russian Orthodox students at the school. He said he’s supportive of trying to meet the requests of parents to bring these features of the school back.

The transportation issue is a newer one. Holland said the former bus company contracted by the district — Apple Bus — could not get insurance for the route to Nikolaevsk because the road to the school is too steep, and because of previous incidents where buses ran into ditches on the way to the school. Holland said he and the district’s Director of Planning and Operations Kevin Lyon are currently looking into solutions.

“I have talked to Kevin Lyon about exploring what it will take to get buses,” he said. “I think it will have to be a four-wheel-drive bus, is what we’re talking about. So we’re looking into that.”

Another group on the south peninsula is currently working to create a charter school, called the Homer Forest School. School Board President Zen Kelly said that group submitted their charter intention by the deadline, but is still going through a process of making revisions to their application that will allow the board to sign off on the charter.

Kelly said that Forest School’s process demonstrates why meeting the district’s charter school deadline is critical. He said if the application is missing any important components, the group needs time to make revisions.

Advocates for the Nikolaevsk Charter School, for their part, say they’ll keep working to make the school happen by next year. They say at this point, reforming the school as it is today is just not an acceptable option.

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