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Fewer students in Kenai school district, but they're doing well

Despite a 16 percent decline in the student population of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, those students are performing better than students in other parts of Alaska.

In an overview of the district, Steve Atwater, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent, said 8,800 students are enrolled in the district, with 1,200 additional children not enrolled in district schools. Some of those in private schools, such as Cook Inlet Academy. Others are in home school programs. “That’s 1,200 … that don’t attend our schools,” said Atwater. “We used to have 10,500.”

A large kindergarten class offers some hope for increasing the size of the district’s student body. “We are optimistic that the cycle will come back around and we’ll continue to see a lot of little guys,” said Atwater.

Kenai students are performing well on state tests, however, and Atwater said reading proficiency scores are about 10 percent above those of students elsewhere in Alaska -- with science scores about 15 percent higher.

“We can consistently say we outperform the state, which is good,” said Atwater.

On the southern Kenai Peninsula, Atwater pointed to high scores from Chapman School.

“They have a level of poverty that is high. Whenever you see impoverished kids do well, they deserve lots of kudos. They’re really smoking,” said Atwater.

Other schools noted by Atwater for high assessment scores were Susan B. English School in Seldovia and West Homer Elementary School. He also pointed to the three schools at the head of Kachemak Bay: Kachemak Selo, Razdolna and Voznesenka.

“They specifically don’t speak English at home, so they come to our schools bilingual,” said Atwater. “The fact that 90 percent at Kachemak Selo are reading proficient, I think is great.” 

One area where the district is “not as good as we want to be” is its high school graduation rate.

“We are generally about 78 percent,” said Atwater. “I think we can do better.” 

Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, the state adopted a star rating system for schools, with a five-star rating the highest. While two Homer schools achieved five-star status -- West Homer Elementary and Homer Middle School -- Atwater pointed to problems with the system. For example, Paul Banks Elementary School, a K-2 school, received three stars.

“But those kids don’t take the test so the only way they’re measured is by attendance,” said Atwater. ‘That’s not fair because that’s a very good school.”

The school district’s revenue comes from multiple sources: 67 percent from the state, 29 percent from the borough, 4 percent from reserves and other sources. Borough funding comes from a 7.5 percent sales tax and property taxes.

“Every time you pay sales tax, every dime goes to the school district,” said Atwater. “That’s a good deal because we’ve all been here in July and know there’s people here in July that don’t live here, but they pay taxes. That’s a lot of dollars in sales tax going straight into the school district. It’s a good thing for the school district because local people aren’t bearing the whole burden of that.”

In terms of property tax contributions to the school district, Atwater said borough residents pay 4.5 mills in property tax and the school district uses about 2.2 mills. Using the example of a house assessed at $200,000, 2.2 mills would be $440 or less than $1.21 a day.

Atwater said some changes have been made to reduce how much the district is spending. One change, increasing class sizes, will cut 10 teacher positions. And a savings of about $250,000 will be realized when Homer schools switch to natural gas.

McKibben Jackinsky is a Homer News reporter. Contact her at mckibben.jackinsky(at)homernews.com.