Charter, alternative programs drain neighborhood schools of middle-class students

Michelle Theriault Boots

The last time Airport Heights Elementary principal Michael Webb checked, about 100 of the children who live within walking distance of his school had chosen to go elsewhere.

The elementary school -- squat, welcoming and built in the 1950s -- is Title I, a designation given to the schools with the neediest students that brings with it extra services and federal money aimed at closing the achievement gap between rich and poor kids.

But Airport Heights is not a poor neighborhood.

It's a grid of desirable ranch houses with tended gardens and the occasional fluttering strand of prayer flags. It's the kind of place that attracts young families with sidewalks and ball fields, where residents organized a "protest party" against the planned destruction of a popular ski trail. Where the disappearance of some backyard chickens was big news.

But, over time, the elementary school has been sapped of students from middle-class families living nearby. Those students have secured zone variances to attend other schools or lottery spots in the district's array of specialty programs.

Airport Heights Elementary has become an island of poverty in a middle-class neighborhood. With poverty come lower test scores; with lower test scores comes a hit to the school's reputation, which keeps some families away.

Airport Heights isn't alone. This scenario is playing out all over Anchorage, but especially in pockets of the city where widely varying income levels are joined by school-zone boundaries.

As the popularity of charter and alternative programs available through the Anchorage School District rises, neighborhood school advocates fear their schools are being overlooked.

Some of them see a two-tier system, segregated by class, in which upwardly mobile families fight to get their children into lottery programs and then pour resources into those schools as neighborhood schools struggle to educate everybody else.

There's evidence that some families no longer consider the school they live closest to as an option: When the ASD polled parents who entered the school lottery in 2013, they found that 42 percent had not even visited their neighborhood school.


Principal Webb does not want Airport Heights Elementary to be left behind.

He has taken on marketing his school to a broader constituency with an almost missionary zeal: creating a program to expose his students to career and life possibilities while luring in the neighborhood families who have abandoned the school for greener pastures with better test scores. It's called the "Dream Big Academy."

He's not mad at the parents who began leaving in earnest eight years after rezoning abruptly added a large low-income constituency. Parents just want to do what they believe is best for their kids, he says.

"We just want to be in the mix. We want them to at least take a look at our school. If someone lives a block away and is not happy with what the school is, I'd at least like a shot at a conversation with them."

At North Star Elementary, off Fireweed Lane in Midtown, principal Marcus Wilson faces a similar problem.

The school's boundary zone encompasses some of Anchorage's poorest neighborhoods, including large subsidized apartment complexes and homeless shelters for families. North Star is also supposed to be the neighborhood school for kids that live in a stately cluster of houses overlooking Westchester Lagoon and a few streets adjacent to West High.

In the seven years Wilson has been principal, not a single child from the more affluent neighborhood has attended his school.

"Those students have historically always chosen to go to a different school rather than here," he said.

North Star is rich in cultural diversity and dedicated staff, Wilson said. But it would benefit his poorer students to mix with kids from other socioeconomic backgrounds. Wilson believes the children could learn from one another's experiences.

"That's what a lot of kids who go to school here really miss out on," he said.

Principals say the flight of middle-class families from schools like Airport Heights and North Star concentrates children who carry the complex burdens of poverty. And education researchers agree that a stubborn achievement gap between affluent and poor children exists and appears to be deepening.

That disparity shows up on standardized tests, a major way that parents evaluate schools. Airport Heights scored a 77.84 on the 2012-13 Alaska School Performance Index.

"It leaves us with a higher percentage of needy kids, which perpetuates low test scores, because our kids have greater needs than the average school," Webb said. "We're not dealing with a balanced demographic in terms of what our neighborhood really looks like."

The median household income in Airport Heights is $64,712, according to U.S. Census data.

Today, about 150 of Airport Heights' 325 students live in the Penland Mobile Home Park, across DeBarr Road, according to Webb. In the census tract that includes the mobile home park, the median household income is $36,804.

What's lost when children don't attend school with kids outside their economic class is not just social, principals say.

Studies show that kids who grow up in low-income households or where English is not the first language show up for kindergarten knowing fewer words. Spending time with children from different socioeconomic backgrounds can enrich their vocabularies.

"(More economic diversity) would elevate the language skills of all of our students, by proximity," Webb said.

While Webb says he has a small but devoted cadre of parent volunteers, he'd also welcome the parents fretting over which lottery school their child will attend.

"Typically, the parents who explore the lottery or alternative schools are going to be the more involved parents," Webb said. "They are the kind of parents active in PTA, who'd be here for field trips. Or just to be on hand to hold the school accountable."

In many of his school's families, he said, parents are balancing several jobs. Some don't speak English, and some have had a negative experience with public education themselves. All of these things are barriers to getting them in the school to volunteer.

Parental involvement is something lottery schools are rich in. Many have a volunteer time requirement. Rilke Schule German School of Arts & Sciences' online "report card" says that parents and other community members volunteered a staggering average of 289 hours per week there.

That kind of involvement pays off in student achievement.

In a 2002 study, researchers with the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory found that regardless of family income or background, students who had parents involved at school tended to earn higher grades, attend class more regularly and were more likely to go to college than those who didn't.

Demographics also expose racial disparities between lottery programs and neighborhood schools.

For example, 54 percent of the district's student body of about 49,000 are "nonwhite," defined by the district as African-American, Alaska Native or American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latino, or multiracial. That's according to the district's demographic analysis from 2012-13, the most recent year available.

Meanwhile, only about 35 percent of students at ASD charter schools are nonwhite. The most sought-after lottery school, Aquarian, has a student body that's 27 percent nonwhite. Chugach Optional is at 23 percent.

Airport Heights Elementary is 86 percent nonwhite. North Star Elementary is 84 percent.


Airport Heights parents who send their children to the neighborhood school say its worth can't be measured in test scores.

Jessica Heller was living in a low-income apartment complex off DeBarr Road when it came time to put her son in kindergarten. He was zoned for Airport Heights, so she enrolled him there. Her son is thriving at the school. He has made enough progress to graduate out of a program for his speech problems.

"His special teacher, she'll come and check on him, even though he's not her problem anymore. She'll say, 'He's just the most wonderful kid.' She makes me feel good about him."

Heller, a full-time UAA student in medical coding and business administration, even joined the PTA, acting as treasurer. She has become the kind of involved parent Airport Heights is desperate for, stopping by for lunch and chats with her son's teacher.

Heller understands that some people have a hard time getting past the Title I label.

"A lot of people look at Title I and say 'I don't want my kid going to a poor school,' " she said. "But just give it a chance. Then there might not be such a big divide between Title I and regular schools."

Ilana and Alvin Amason's sons have both attended Airport Heights. Ilana Amason said she loves the school's approach of creating a "neighborhood village" and the weekend and evening events that draw families and community members into the school. Her 7-year-old son sometimes gets individual lesson plans to challenge him academically.

"This school has become part of our family," she said.

Carla Burkhead, another Airport Heights PTA stalwart, lives just a few blocks from the school. She also works there as a Title I interventionist. Her husband is a biology professor. Burkhead says she chose to enroll her son there because she believes that neighborhoods are for living in fully and that schools will remain segregated by class as long as families like hers keep their kids away.

"These children have the same potential (my son) has. By supporting your neighborhood school you're putting your child on the front line, and people aren't comfortable doing that."

If you look only at test scores, Airport Heights isn't the most attractive choice, she said.

"You've got to start thinking about what we don't measure," she said. "Like diversity. And reality."

The choice can feel a little lonely. Some of her friends don't understand.

"I was a little angry for a while. But I had no right to be angry at someone because they were trying to do the best for their kid."


When her son was ready for kindergarten, Hilkka Bold looked up and down her street in the Lake Hood area of Spenard and found that almost every child went to a different school. Rilke Schule. Turnagain. Government Hill. Only one family had a child at the neighborhood school.

"The culture was to shop around and do your homework," said the part-time labor-and-delivery nurse. "It felt like you weren't really doing your kids a service unless you did the research and picked the school that was the best fit for them."

The district's data shows culture can be powerful: A third of parents who responded to the district's lottery survey said "parent recommendation" led them to their top-choice school. Another 26 percent cited "reputation."

Bold and her husband applied to a bunch of programs with the caveat that the school could be no more than a 10-minute drive away. When she found out that her son had gotten a spot at Aquarian, she said, she burst into happy tears. Her children are happy at the school. She says she feels fortunate.

But for Bold's children and a growing swath of others, lottery school placements have unhooked school and neighborhood friendships. Now, next-door-neighbor kids attend a different school while classmates live across town. In the summer, her kids get lost in cul-de-sac street games but don't see school friends as much. During the winter, there are a lot of parent-arranged play dates and time in the car.

"We have our summer friends and winter friends," she said.

She is also stung by the idea that the fruits of a highly successful school aren't available to everyone. She wonders: Does the success of her children's school come at the expense of other neighborhood schools?

"I think we need to look at what is making Aquarian work and apply that to neighborhood schools," she said. "It can't just be for this elite group of families that can drive their kids to school and commit to the (required) volunteer hours."

For the parents of entering kindergartners, the March lottery for enrollment spots has become a fraught ritual laden with heavy-seeming choices.

Just after Christmas, Paula Dobbyn and her husband, John Reed, started researching schools for their daughter, Olive.

They live in Airport Heights and toured the neighborhood school along with a half dozen others.

In the end, they applied to 12 lottery programs this spring. Their daughter was among 4,253 student applications, representing about 8 percent of the district enrollment, according to ASD statistics.

After getting into several programs, including the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School and Rilke Schule, the family chose Government Hill's Spanish immersion program. Dobbyn and Reed, a wildlife biologist, had connections to Latin America and wanted their daughter to learn a second language.

"It wasn't so much that we chose not to send her to Airport Heights," said Dobbyn, a communications director for a conservation nonprofit. "But if there are other programs that can offer her language immersion or cultural immersion, why not take advantage of what Anchorage has to offer?"


Some have suggested that offering busing to lottery program schools would level the playing field.

The district has considered it, said superintendent Ed Graff. Extending busing to lottery programs would cost roughly $9 million to $15 million and wouldn't necessarily provide access to all locations.

Given that the district is projecting another yawning budget deficit next year, it's unlikely to happen in the near future.

But the district does have a stake in ensuring that the success of choice offerings doesn't come at the expense of neighborhood schools. People need to be more familiar with and comfortable in the schools in their neighborhoods, Graff said.

To that end, the first ever "Visit Your Neighborhood Schools" month was held in February. About 1,000 families toured local schools.

But school choice is popular, and the district's dozens of offerings are a response to community demand, Graff said.

"It's a fine line," he said "We know in a district of our size and diverse population we are going to have varying needs and interests. We need to make sure we can have offerings that work in conjunction with neighborhood schools."

At Airport Heights, hopes are rising.

Thanks in part to the success of the Dream Big Academy, kindergarten enrollment is up for next year by 20 percent. Some of those new students come from the immediate neighborhood. The school building, one of the city's oldest, is also slated for a $22 million renovation and the addition of much-needed space.

"We need to offer a really good product for our families," Webb said. "And that's why people should take a look at us."

Recently Jessica Heller, the Airport Heights PTA treasurer whose son graduated from his speech program there, was able to move out of subsidized housing into an apartment in Mountain View that sits right across the street from another school.

She found herself applying for a zone exemption so her son could stay at Airport Heights.

"I love that school," she said. "I couldn't leave it."

Next year, Heller will join a legion of Anchorage parents driving their children past the neighborhood school to one they feel certain is the best choice.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.