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'Our kids matter, and our school matters': Seldovia school struggles with staffing and enrollment

The Susan B. English School in Seldovia in July, 2023.
Riley Board
The Susan B. English School in Seldovia in July, 2023.

The small southern Kenai Peninsula city of Seldovia has had a tumultuous school year, as major staff changes precipitated a drop in enrollment.

Seldovia’s only school, the K-12 Susan B. English School, is a centerpiece of the small, off-road system city. This school year, it has seen a complete turnover of certified staff; three teachers and a principal who started the school year at Susan B. English were all gone by the end of 2023.

Parents and the city government expressed their concern to the school district, asking for more support for small schools and more stable staffing.

Kate Hohman Billmeier is homeschooling her two elementary-age children after she pulled them out of Susan B. English last fall.

“I think for us, and for a lot of Seldovian families, weighing the learning that was occurring and the educational environment at Susan B. English School in the wake of the events that happened with teacher departures and departures of leadership, we didn’t feel comfortable keeping our kids in a learning environment that had previously been excellent, up until this point,” she said.

Hohman Billmeier isn’t alone. Susan B. English started the year with 49 students, but ended the calendar year with just 22. At its lowest recorded enrollment, in October, there were 19.

The Seldovia City Council tackled the issue in November. It passed a resolution calling on the district to solve the staffing issues at the school. The document was included in the Board of Education’s meeting packet last week.

“Susan B. English School has had an unprecedented year with staff turnover and student retention that may have long-lasting detrimental impacts on the community as a whole,” the resolution reads.

Council Member Jennifer Swick, one of the resolution’s sponsors, spoke at the city council’s Nov. 13 meeting.

“Hopefully they’ll continue to help us out and realize that there are issues that need to be addressed,” she said. “Our kids matter, and our school matters.”

In the resolution, the city suggests incentives to recruit and retain educators, funding of programs to support local recruitment, long-term planning for turnover, community involvement in hiring and much more. The city calls on the board of education, the year-old Small Schools Committee and district administrators to prioritize equitable and sustainable education for small schools off the road system.

At least one teacher has returned to Susan B. English this year. District administrators did not return requests for an interview before airtime.

Hohman Billmeier, the parent of two Seldovia students, said the school also needs greater social-emotional support for remaining students, to compensate for the turmoil and lost trust resulting from staff turnover.

“They need stability, they need consistency, they need positive adults that they can count on,” she said.

In the long term, she said, the district’s goal should be finding educators who are committed to the kids in Seldovia, which could include investing in things like student teacher programs or job shadowing.

But she also knows the problems in Seldovia are a part of broader issues with funding and recruitment across the state.

“I think that the district can certainly reach out and learn from other districts to learn what other recruitment and retention strategies are in place that could be mapped on to the KPBSD,” Hohman Billmeier said. “It doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. But are there other innovative ways of looking at recruitment and retention that could be useful in our setting?”

She said when it’s clear there is stability and demonstrated learning occurring at Susan B. English, she would be ready to re-enroll her kids.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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