The Anchorage School District is developing a plan to close Mount Iliamna Elementary School, a one-story school on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.
About 60 students from across the sprawling school district currently attend Mount Iliamna — known in the district as "Mt. I." It has long existed as the end-of-the-road school for elementary-age students who are so aggressive or disruptive they are unable to successfully function in regular or special education classrooms.
The district's hope was with Mount Iliamna's tiny class sizes and array of support services, the students placed there could eventually leave and go back to neighborhood schools.
But that long-standing strategy is set for a change.
The district administration says it is planning to shutter Mount Iliamna, likely by the fall of 2017, and send its students to expanded behavioral support programs at one of four neighborhood elementary schools, which have yet to be publicly identified.
Heidi Embley, school district spokesperson, said ASD's administration is expected to present its final closure plan to the Anchorage School Board in January or February. Board members do not have to vote on the closure, she said, but the district is working through any questions or concerns from the board and staff.
The district is also planning meetings with Mount Iliamna parents.
"We have a strong plan about what we think is best for students," Embley said. Unless something goes "drastically wrong" in the next few months, or pieces of the plan don't align, Mount Iliamna will close at the end of the current school year, she said.
District officials said this week they believe closing the school will both eliminate concerns about access to the building through the base gates and will better serve the elementary student population with emotional and behavioral disorders.
All of the students at Mount Iliamna have some documented disability, ranging from autism to fetal alcohol syndrome to Down syndrome. The disorders can lead to violent behaviors.
Under the district's current plan, Mount Iliamna students will attend new and expanded behavioral programs at select elementary schools starting in the 2017-18 school year. This will allow students to interact more with their grade-level peers who can serve as role models, said Glen Nielsen, executive director of elementary education at ASD.
"It gives them access to peers their own age who are not students who are anywhere on the continuum of behavioral or cognitive issues," he said. "They can sit side-by-side with students in the classroom."
The new structure will also allow the students to gradually transition to regular classrooms when and if they're ready, said Cindy Anderson, executive director of special education for the district. It could start with something as small as a five-minute walk through the school hallways, she said.
Currently, Anderson said, students stay at Mount Iliamna until they are evaluated as ready to attend a regular school or special education classroom.
Mount Iliamna Principal Denise Carpentier said transition times can vary widely between students. Some may attend the school for a few months while others may stay for years. Some students will never go to a regular school, instead graduating to Whaley School in East Anchorage, which serves students with behavioral needs in sixth to 12th grades.
Last school year, 16 students transitioned out of Mount Iliamna. So far this year, nine students have transitioned to another school, Carpentier said Wednesday.
Carpentier said one of the biggest challenges for students transitioning back to neighborhood schools is moving into new buildings with new staff and new peers. She said that for her, one of the biggest benefits of the district's plan to close Mount Iliamna is that students will no longer have to change buildings.
School Board member Starr Marsett said she has tried for years to get Mount Iliamna moved off the military base. Marsett's son once attended the school and he's now in high school.
Marsett said she has worried about parents not being able to get onto the military base if they didn't have the proper identification or had been found guilty of felony charges. Parents who don't have a car have had to take a taxi to the military gate, where they are picked up by school staff, Anderson said.
"You should never have a school in the district that a parent of a child can't even go to," Marsett said.
Jim Hart, JBER spokesperson, said he had not heard of any parents unable to get onto base. He said people with felony convictions have to apply for a waiver to get in.
Anderson said Mount Iliamna opened on the base 11 years ago. The program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students was once housed at Whaley School, but due to overcrowding, the district decided to move it. The on-base building was vacant and immediately available. It had housed a preschool special education program in the past, she said.
ASD Superintendent Deena Paramo said the decision to close the school came down to trying to serve children in the best way, and in the least restrictive environment possible.
"I think their learning is just going to soar," she said.
Krista James, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Special Education, said in an email that ASD's plan to transition students into their neighborhood schools is based on best practices in the education field.
She said school officials had explained the plan to her and she found ASD had taken a number of key items into consideration, including planning to provide access to specialists and professional development.
However, James said, as a parent of three children with FAS disorders, she knew the transition to neighborhood school programs would be difficult for many Mount Iliamna students and families.
"As parents, we often become very attached to the staff in our child's program, and they are almost like family to us. They have been with us through thick and thin," James said in an email. "The feelings of the students and families should not be taken lightly nor brushed to the side. They need to have their voices heard and be utilized as partners in this transition in order for it to be successful."
Inside of the school
On Wednesday, students at Mount Iliamna sat at desks inside of classrooms decorated with brightly colored art projects. In one room, six students completed math work quietly. Each pair of students worked with one adult.
Down the hallway, a young boy lay on the ground in a "safe room" as an adult tried to calm him down. Mount Iliamna is the only elementary school in the district with safe rooms, empty cells that lock from the outside if they have doors. Some of the rooms do not, Carpentier said, including the one that held the boy.
Carpentier said many Mount Iliamna staff are specially trained to work with the students at the school. The class sizes at Mount Iliamna are also exceptionally small, ranging from four to nine students.
The average elementary school classes at ASD range from 21 students in kindergarten to 26 in a fifth-grade class and 27 in a sixth-grade class.
Carpentier said the Mount Iliamna staff has been generally positive about the decision to close the school. However, there are concerns about where their next jobs will be and whom they will work with. At the school, they've become like a family, she said. The school has 15 teachers and 31 staff members.
One of the teachers, Michael Saffle, said it's his job to help Mount Iliamna students navigate the world they're in, to give them hope and peace and teach them to trust. He said he doesn't like that there's one school in the district where "everyone sends the students they can't handle." With the new behavioral programs, he said, more staff will have to learn how to teach and talk to these students — and he plans to help.
"If it helps the kids, it's good," he said of the change. "If it doesn't, then it's not. But we can't do anything if we don't try."
Anderson said all of the school's staff will be able to move to jobs at new schools, and many who have specialized skills and training to work with students with behavioral disorders will be critical in making the new programs work.
She said the students moving into the four behavioral programs would receive the same level of support they did at Mount Iliamna. The entire staff at the schools selected to house the programs would also receive additional professional development.
Carpentier said Mount Iliamna parents were sent a note Wednesday about the new program structure. By Thursday afternoon, she hadn't heard any feedback.
R'Lynn Gore, president of Mount Iliamna's PTA, said in an interview Thursday that the district's plan came with pros, cons and concerns.
"You're dealing with a population of students who have severe behavioral issues — that's what 'Mt. I' is there for. Isolating these children from the mainstream has been beneficial in that the mainstream students aren't exposed to the behavioral issues that these students experience and these behavioral issues can be very extreme," she said. "But it also has pitfalls. Our children typically have social issues because they aren't exposed to mainstream students."
Gore is the legal guardian of her 9-year-old grandson, Sebastian, a boy with FAS and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. He was born into a violent atmosphere, she said, and learned violent behaviors at a very young age.
Now in fourth grade, he has attended Mount Iliamna since kindergarten. The school is good for him, she said. There are teachers trained to handle children like him, who have disorders that lead to aggressive and violent behavior.
Gore said not a lot of the parents are close at Mount Iliamna, so she hasn't heard much from many about the plan to close the school. She said what little she has heard has ranged from parents who felt fear, to others who felt relief.
But what it all comes down to, she said, is "How will this play out for our children?"