The largest schools on the Kenai Peninsula offer students a wide range of choices – academics, extracurricular activities and more

Editor’s note: This is the last part of the v five-part series about the diverse school communities on the Kenai Peninsula.

SOLDOTNA — In Soldotna, the seat of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the location of the school district office, high school looks a lot like many American cities. Football, prom and lots of academic choices.

“When we create our master schedule, we keep the interests of students in mind,” said Soldotna High School Principal Sergeant Truesdell. “We also try to fill all the squares with things that will inspire students about what they want to do next, as well as fulfill all the requirements for graduation.”

The more students a school has, the more specialized classes and creative extracurricular activities it can offer. These options are a feature of some of the largest schools on the Kenai Peninsula.

Truesdell says the variety of options is his school’s greatest advantage and something he is able to offer because of economies of scale. It has about 650 students, fewer than the average American high school but more than any other in the district. There are lockers in the building’s corridors where students can show off their extracurricular activities: drumming, track, volleyball, football.

More than half of SoHi students play sports. Phil Leck is the school’s full-time athletic director and a major advocate of the impact sports can have on a child’s education.

“I think these are the No. 1 interventions in all public high schools,” Leck said. “Every year you will find kids walking across this stage because of athletics and for no other reason.”

Leck said this is because most coaches are school teachers who receive an “extremely modest” stipend for coaching outside of class hours. He said the extra perspective on kids outside of class and the extra level of support make a difference.

SoHi has a dedicated exercise room with dozens of squat racks, overlooking a traditional gym. Below, students practice shooting hoops and volleyballs.

Not only sports are well-equipped here. SoHi boasts two art teachers – one dedicated exclusively to ceramics – as well as a range of music and technical courses such as aviation, cosmetology and construction.

Construction teacher Tim White helps his class build full-size, functional sheds and houses.

“We try to get kids to come to the workshop, we try to get them working, using power tools, the same power tools that are used in the industry, using the same construction practices and the same construction sciences,” White said. “And the kids love it. I run all day trying to keep up with them.

Kenai Middle School

Twenty minutes away in Kenai, the district’s largest middle school is also a vibrant place for extracurricular activities. Kenai Middle has over 400 students. One-third of students are from Alaska and one-quarter participate in individualized education plans.

“A lot of what we’ve been able to do, even with the cuts, is keep a lot of things interesting,” Principal Vaughn Dosko said. “We have a lot of subjects to choose from. Children will go to language classes, art classes, they will go to math classes if they know that they will go home to classes, to classes at the store, or they will go to art classes. So we’ve been able to keep a lot of the activities that the kids enjoy.”

Assistant Principal Ken Felchle teaches his own hunting and fishing classes in Alaska. The course was created during a time of declining school funding when Kenai Middle lost specialty courses.

“When this happened, our administration turned to core teachers and said, ‘We’re losing two core electives. What can you offer so that we can create discovery activities that didn’t exist?’” he said.

Felchle said the spirit of engaging activities remained alive through teachers’ involvement and offering their personal skills. Currently, he helps middle school children obtain hunting and fishing certificates.

Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School

The same philosophy prevails at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, the largest in the district with 420 students. In an overcrowded building, interventionists use the hallways to work one-on-one with students, and administrators say the tremendous efforts of teachers make a difference — like one who decided to organize an after-school music club when the school was unable to fill its position.

“Teachers in the field love children and what they do,” said Principal Janae Van Slyke. But they added a lot of extra things to teachers, and then there was no pay raise to match the economic situation.”

One of the biggest examples this year was the introduction of the Alaska Reads Act. Teachers say adapting to frequent testing, a new curriculum and parents’ concerns about their children’s progress are putting an additional burden on teachers in kindergarten through third grade.

There is only the number of students left.

“I think every teacher would say that class sizes will be the No. 1 challenge,” said sixth-grade teacher Diane Smreka.

The current student-teacher ratio at K-Beach is as high as 28 in fourth grade. This year, in the face of deep budget cuts, the district may increase its ratio by one for all large elementary schools.

K-Beach still makes time for individualized education by implementing a daily, school-wide hour called WIN (“What I Need”) time. This is a period of differentiated education for all students, which allows teachers and interventionists to work closely with students with special needs or advanced learners.

This approach continues into high school. Truesdell, principal of Soldotna High School, said just over half of his students go on to college or vocational school after graduation, with the rest going directly into the workforce. His passion is to legitimize any path a student may take.

“We want to make sure that each of our graduating seniors feels like they have been at any of the camps they have been to, whether they are going to college, going straight to work, or going on some type of vo-tech or apprenticeship . thing, it would be great if that’s what they wanted,” Truesdell said.

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This reporting project that originally appeared on KDLL and is republished here with permission, is supported by a grant from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism through the Alaska Impact Reporting Initiative. Read the entire series here.