A year later, Nikolaevsk group revives charter school application
A group of moms from the South Peninsula, Russian Old Believer community of Nikolaevsk are pushing for a charter school for the second year in a row.
Currently, that application is making its way through the review process. But Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officials say they’re working on improvements to the public school, and a charter oversight group noted several areas for improvement in the group’s application.
This time last year, a charter group formed and declared their interest in dissolving the public school in Nikolaevsk, then replacing it with a charter school. Their complaints with the district were related to a lack of Russian education in the school, understaffing, low enrollment and gaps in bus transportation.
But the group missed the application to found a charter by two months, and the district told them it was too late and they would have to revisit the idea the next year. This week, the applicants re-began the process of pushing their charter forward with a district Charter Oversight Committee meeting on Oct. 9.
“Our mission is to revitalize the community by providing the highest standard of education while respecting the culture of the individual and the founding principles of Nikolaevsk,” Chandra Caffroy, one of the founding members of the charter, said during a presentation to the oversight committee.
She laid out the goals for the school: early Russian language immersion, a focus on agricultural education and diplomas from the International Baccalaureate program for high schoolers. The latest plan includes sharing the public school building, sharing a principal with that school, and has an interested enrollment list of 80. Marriah Kerrone, the other charter co-founder, also spoke.
“Nikolaevsk has deep roots in self-reliance and living off the land. We will offer an agriculture program that honors the community’s culture and builds their hard work. It will encompass not only Alaska history, but skills of working the land in Alaska, biology, animal husbandry and much more,” Kerrone said.
During a question and answer session, oversight committee members shared concerns about the lack of Alaska Reads Act compliance in the application. Committee members told the group that in order to get state approval, they would need to include an evidence-based reading curriculum, as well as a math curriculum and a contract with the school district for the building space they want to use.
Dawn Grimm, principal of Kaleidoscope charter school in Kenai, also cautioned the charter against sharing a principal with the public school, and said it could create a conflict of interest for that individual.
“The role of a charter principal is very different than that of a regular school, just in that they are in charge of that entire charter, so that puts a lot more work onto them,” she said.
The committee commended the group for the effort put into their application, and their passion for educating the community. At the same time, some members, like Aurora Borealis Principal Cody McCanna, suggested pursuing other methods for bringing Nikolaevsk culture back into the public school.
“Is the charter school route the best way of doing that?” he said. “Or is that going to create more tension, more headaches, in the long run?”
In their presentation, charter founders alluded to issues with the district, which they said led to a mass exodus of families around 2017.
District Superintendent Clayton Holland said since the charter group formed, the district has made strides at the school to mitigate the community’s concerns. That includes returning to a Russian Old Believer Holy Day calendar, which is in place this year.
In an email, Holland wrote, “I believe a significant issue arose before the pandemic when many families and community members felt unheard. This was a concern that predates the current administration's tenure. Upon becoming aware of these concerns, we have been actively addressing them. Some of these matters may require time, but progress is being made.”
He said there’s an ongoing, concerted effort to bring athletics back to the school, and that the new school principal is making great connections with the community.
But he also said the process has been difficult on the district administration.
“I believe that the individuals directly involved with the [charter] genuinely have the best interests of their children at heart and are good people who have legitimate concerns about past issues,” he said. “However, it has come to my attention that an individual associated with this group has made threats against people in the district, including myself.”
He said the threats coincided with an alarming incident that happened on his private property.
Holland also criticized outside “government officials, politicians, and appointed bureaucrats” for what he said may have been an attempt to circumvent local control on behalf of the charter group.
Caffroy said the charter group has its own concerns about the process, including how the district has handled the timeline of the application.
As the charter application is ongoing, Caffroy said parents formed a co-op home-schooling group that serves 24 students, which has been meeting in the community’s Russian Orthodox Church, and in the offices of the community’s water treatment plant. The co-op asked the district if they could use the Nikolaevsk School classrooms for instruction, but were denied. Chandra said that came even after the Nikolaevsk Community Council bought liability insurance, which they were instructed to do by school administrators.
Holland said the application was denied because it lacked specific detail, and the insurance requirement was a miscommunication. But now, he said, the district is working with the co-op group to make the space available to them.
“We are actively exploring options to potentially make certain rooms available to them through a cooperative arrangement, as part of the Connections Home School Program,” he said. “We aim to accommodate their needs while ensuring a smooth and mutually beneficial arrangement.”
The Nikolaevsk Charter School will go up for review at a Board of Education work session on Monday, Oct. 16, and the group has until Friday of this week to make revisions to their application. Then, the board will make a formal decision on Oct. 23, which must be submitted in writing by the end of the month.