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Mat-Su's public-education approach: 'Basically you can go to any school you choose'

WASILLA -- In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, there are about as many ways to attend public school as there are ATV trails.

Ask Ruth Villanueva. For a time last year, the mother and business owner had three children in as many Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District programs.

One child was at Palmer High, though the family lives closer to Colony High, for the International Baccalaureate program.

Another was at Palmer's Academy Charter School, where uniforms, taekwondo and piano lessons are mandatory.

The third spent most of his time being home-schooled at the family's Wasilla clothing boutique, using a curriculum supplied by the district.

"I think we had all the modes of education covered," Villanueva said.

As debate over "school choice" and a constitutional amendment that could pave the way for a voucher system continues in the Legislature, the state's second-largest school district has quietly embraced its own version of school choice -- inside the public education system.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Deena Paramo, a self-described "data nerd" with a doctorate in educational assessment and systems management, the district has thrown open the doors to its 45 schools with a total open enrollment policy: Any child can go to any school with a one-page boundary exemption that can only be denied under rare circumstances, said district spokeswoman Catherine Esary. (Some charter schools or other alternative programs still have entrance requirements or a lottery admissions system.)

"It means basically you can go to any school you choose," she said.

The district makes its philosophy plain on posters tacked to the walls at the Mat-Su Central School, where home-schoolers can drop in to take algebra or creative writing: "We proudly support parental freedom and options in your child's education."

Paramo believes that if Mat-Su schools offer bountiful options, almost every family should be able to find a reason to become a customer of the public school district.

"Every opportunity we have at all of those 45 schools, we try to make it as accessible to any child for his or her learning as possible," Paramo said.

The result is a fundamental shift in the way families approach education: from a set menu to à la carte.

The old model -- where geography dictated where you went to school -- is a relic, Paramo said.

"With social media, students' worlds are flat. They don't see the distinction between a friend living in the Butte, or in Wasilla, because they are connected instantly on Facebook," Paramo said. "We decided the district needed to become flat too."

The district's philosophy of flexibility and individualization -- paired with a reputation for fiscal leanness (the district boasts of having the smallest ratio of administrators to students of any of the five biggest districts in the state) -- has attracted attention from Valley lawmakers, who are influential voices in the committees that decide education funding.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, the architect of the main bill that seeks to repeal Alaska's constitutional provision prohibiting public money for private schools, invited Paramo to speak at a hearing on school choice.

At the hearing, Paramo was careful to sidestep questions about the district's position on vouchers, which could reduce money for their operations.

"I want to stay out of the politics," she said in an interview in her office at district headquarters in Palmer.

(Dunleavy and other Wasilla lawmakers did not respond to repeated requests for interviews for this story.)

But it's clear why the district is being looked at as a model.

The district lists "choice, innovation and customer service" as its three guiding principles and uses the language of business in promotional materials. An Army JROTC unit at Colony High is listed as an example of a "value-added" program.

By recruiting new "customers," the district attracts the state education dollars that come with them.

Paramo says she makes decisions based on the idea that the future Valley graduates will face is unwritten -- so the district must be nimble and squeeze dollars into places that will best prepare students for work or college.

"I want to be able to turn on a dime," she said.

An emphasis on online courses is driven in part by evidence that college freshmen and sophomores across the country are being asked to take many basic classes online, Paramo said.

An effort to extend pre-K services to families who fall in the income gap between qualifying for Head Start and being able to pay for private preschool also makes fiscal sense, she said.

"It is cheaper to educate a kid who is reading and writing (when they enter kindergarten) than to re-educate them three times."

With an open-door policy, part of the difficulty is physically moving students to schools spread over a geographic area of about 25,000 square miles.

"You can have all these programs, but if you don't have access, what's the point?" Paramo said.

The district spends $1.5 million from its general fund, in addition to dedicated transportation money, to augment its web of bus stops.

That includes providing pick-ups to four out of six charter schools, which usually require families to provide transportation.

A "hub" system allows parents who live in the far reaches of the Valley to drop kids at more central bus stops, which can mean the difference between a 10-mile school commute and a 50-mile one.

For example, children living in outlying areas can meet an eastbound bus at the Wasilla Target parking lot to hop a ride to Academy Charter School in Palmer, said Principal Barbara Gerard.

Increasingly, Mat-Su students aren't sitting in classrooms at all.

Online classes and distance learning represent a growing share of the way students take courses, especially at the high school level.

At "Cyber Centers" in all the comprehensive high schools, students completed 1,700 online classes last year, Esary said.

And the biggest school in the Valley, with 1,600 students, isn't a traditional one but a central hub for home-schooling support and distance-learning classes. Enrollment at the Mat-Su Central School has jumped by hundreds in the past few years, said Principal John Brown.

The Mat-Su Central School shares a building with legislative offices along a busy stretch of frontage road on the Parks Highway in Wasilla.

Inside, there are flat screen monitors on walls and labs full of shiny Apple computers.

The idea of a "blended" home school benefits the district. If an otherwise home-schooled student enrolls at Mat-Su Central, the district gets a portion of his or her state-funded "base student allocation" money.

Mat-Su Central is capturing some of the Valley's toughest educational customers: Parents who don't want to send their kids to public school, but recognize the value in having a trained teacher run a high school chemistry lab.

"It's not just die-hard home schoolers," Brown said. "It's people looking for some flexibility in their child's education."

Jesse Carnahan, who works as an academic advisor at Mat-Su Central, says he is one of those customers.

He and his wife decided to home school their daughter because they wanted a bilingual education for her and the nearest Russian-language school was far away, in Willow. Now, her education includes a mix of parent-instructed study, a Russian tutor (approved and reimbursed by the district) and physical education at Denali Gymnastics.

"You kind of customize it," he said. "It doesn't feel like we could have done this in another district."

Eventually she'll probably go to full-time public school, Carnahan said.

But do all the choices come at an acceptable cost?

Mat-Su schools have the highest class sizes in the state.

In the 2012-2013 school year, 48 percent of Valley fourth graders were considered "below proficient" in science on the state's standards-based assessment test, a slightly higher percentage than Anchorage but below the state average. More than a quarter of Mat-Su students do not graduate on time.

The district has already experienced some of the drastic cuts in teaching positions the Anchorage School District is now reckoning with.

In 2011, facing a $9 million deficit and stagnant state funding, the district cut more than 70 teaching positions by using federal stimulus funds to offer early retirements.

"Other schools used that money to hire teachers, but we knew what was coming," Paramo said.

To preserve course options, middle and high schools moved to a seven-period schedule. (The ASD was planning to do the same to offset planned cuts next year, but the school board on Feb. 20 postponed implementing the change for a year.)

Mat-Su district officials analyzed data at the end of the first year. They say they found no link between more classes per day and decreased learning.

"It was rocky. It was hard. But it didn't hurt kids," Paramo said. "Test scores went up."

Bob Williams, a Colony High School math teacher, 2009 Alaska Teacher of the Year and current candidate for lieutenant governor, says wringing more out of the teaching day with seven periods dilutes learning.

"The English teacher down the hall from me has almost 200 students per day," he said. "He used to assign a three-page essay. Now he assigns a one-page essay."

The Mat-Su's success in offering many things to many people while keeping its fiscal house in order is a mirage, he says.

"If you don't look at quality, it looks like a miracle," he said.

A $7 million budget shortfall for next year looms.

Paramo says between money in the district's fund balance and potential base student allocation increases, she's confident layoffs won't be necessary.

Still, the district must strain to maintain its educational buffet -- and may not be able to sustain it into the future without more funding.

"We are already pushed to our maximum," Paramo said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.