Anchorage School District administrators propose cuts to immersion programs and IGNITE

Young students sit behind desks in an elementary school classroom.
Students at Birchwood ABC Elementary sit in their classroom on November 1, 2022. Birchwood ABC is one of six schools within the Anchorage School District that administrators recommend closing next year. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District leaders are considering how school buildings might be repurposed if six elementary schools close next year.

At a work session Tuesday, consultant Shannon Bingham proposed allowing charter schools to use some of the spaces.

According to his proposed plan, Birchwood ABC Elementary’s building would house Eagle Academy. Klatt’s building would house Highland Academy and PAIDEIA. Nunaka Valley and Northwood Elementary Schools’ buildings would have new pre-K programs. And the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School and STrEaM Academy would share Wonder Park’s building.

The district wouldn’t be able to collect rent from charter schools but would save on utilities and maintenance costs.

Administrators also proposed changes to language immersion programs. The district’s Chinese, French and Yup’ik immersion programs would end after fifth grade. Middle schoolers would end their language immersion programs in eighth grade. 

High school immersion programs would be eliminated after this school year. Instead, high school students would be encouraged to enroll in AP or other high-level language classes at their school, or sign up for a college-level language class. Administrators also suggested that students could participate in an exchange program in a foreign country or start learning a different language instead.

School board president Margo Bellamy asked Brandon Locke, director of the district’s world language and immersion programs, what he thought of the proposal. He said he worried the cuts would discourage parents from enrolling their kids in elementary school immersion programs.

“What would be the purpose of, say, starting a kindergartener in French next year, knowing it’s going to end in just a few years?” he asked. “I think that’s going to automatically cause enrollment issues in our current programs at the elementary level.”

At the middle and high school levels, Locke worried about how those students would fare in standard high school language classes, which use a very different curriculum.

RELATED: Anchorage parents, students ask school board to keep funding for language immersion programs

Finally, administrators proposed moving the IGNITE program, a district-wide program for gifted second through sixth graders, online. The district’s teaching and learning director, Dianna Beltran, said the resulting staff reductions would save the district $3 million and free up bus drivers.

School board member Kelly Lessens worried that students would miss out the main benefits of the program if it moved online.

“I’m thinking about IGNITE projects like dissecting a frog or learning to use a 3D printer,” she said.

Beltran said students may still have access to those kinds of activities depending on what school they attend.

The board planned a two-hour work session for Tuesday, Nov. 15, to discuss moving all sixth graders to middle school and outsourcing hockey, swimming and girls’ gymnastics over the course of three years. Anderson said administrators will also ask the board for a decision on the proposed changes to IGNITE and the school repurposing plan at that meeting.

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