Kenai Peninsula board narrowly rejects Nikolaevsk’s proposal for a charter school

a church
The Church of St. Nicholas, a Russian Orthodox church in Nikolaevsk. (Riley Board/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Board of Education voted Monday not to support the Nikolaevsk Charter School in a lengthy deliberation process.

Parents in Nikolaevsk have been proposing a charter school in the Russian Old Believer village since last fall. Their goal is a school with strong cultural components, like Russian language immersion, a subsistence calendar and a project-based learning philosophy. The charter arose as a response to concerns about the public school in the community, like a lack of bus transportation and Old Believer calendar.

“Community members, local businesses and the community council are excited to work with [Nikolaevsk Charter] students and faculty to once again integrate the school and the community and bring the school back to its former glory,” Charter founder Chandra Caffory said Monday. “Community members have fond memories of the school being the hub and want to make it so again. [The charter] intends to help facilitate this by working with community leaders, members and business owners.”

Last year, the charter application was submitted after the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s deadline, but organizers resubmitted this September, and have had several meetings over the past month. At a charter oversight committee meeting Oct. 9, principals of other charter schools in the district had concerns about the application’s scope and compliance with the Alaska Reads Act.

On Oct. 16, charter organizers presented to the full school board, where members asked them to tighten the budget and decide on a science-based reading curriculum.

a school building
The K-12 Nikolaevsk School in October 2022. (Riley Board/KDLL)

Monday morning, charter organizers told the school board they had responded to concerns by adopting a Montessori curriculum for elementary students, and scrapping plans for a preschool and a shared principal. They also reworked the budget.

Charter members told the board that Montessori and International Baccalaureate, the curriculum chosen for high school, are very compatible curricula, and that Montessori aligns with their values for the school.

During the six-hour discussion, board members praised the efforts of the charter group and expressed support for a culturally relevant school in Nikolaevsk, but still had concerns about the application.

“I think that curriculum piece is where I’m seeing a lack of conviction,” said East Peninsula Board Member Virginia Morgan. “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. That’s an area I really feel like needs to be further developed and discussed.”

The board also focused on the budget, with some members saying it lacked proper funding for special education and necessary teacher training.

Other points concerned a lack of negotiated agreement with the district to use the building facilities, and inconsistencies in page numbers in the application. Charter principals said the state’s standards are extremely high for charter applications.

The board first supported an amendment that would require the charter to negotiate its memorandum of agreement with the district before submitting its application to the state, then another that would allow the application to be edited to fix administrative concerns after approval. Kenai Board Member Matt Morse spearheaded those amendments.

“I want to give them the best chance they have to get this through, and if the board does decline it after all this is done, they have a clear path forward for appeal,” he said.

But the meeting ultimately ended in a 5-4 vote against the charter.

Soldotna member Penny Vadla voted against, and said the application had technical issues and she didn’t want to send it along to the state with outstanding concerns.

“I want success. And I believe you’ll have success if a couple more pieces are in place,” she said.

The charter authors can now appeal to the state’s commissioner of education, who can hear the application and either return it to the district board or pass it to the statewide Board of Education and Early Development.

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