This story originally appeared on Alaska Public Media and is republished here with permission.
An Alaska Native charter school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade will open this fall in Wasilla with nearly 200 students.
The Knik Tribe has spent the last three years planning the Knik Cultural Charter School with the help of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education. In December 2021, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District approved a 10-year charter for the school.
Anticipation in the community has been building, said Esther Shade, the school’s assistant project director.
“We’ve heard a lot of things, like, ‘It’s been a long time coming. We are excited. I wish this was open when I was in school,’” she said. “I’m still getting phone calls at least every day saying that they’re just excited.”
Shade and other Knik tribal employees conducted surveys among Alaska Native families in the Mat-Su when planning for the school.
“They want more cultural activities in the classroom with high academic expectations,” Shade said. “And there’s a way that you can teach both cultural values with high academics.”
They also wanted a K-12 school, so siblings in different grades could be at the same location during the school day. Project director Carl Chamblee said that sets the Knik Cultural Charter School apart from other new charter schools.
“A lot of charter schools start with a K-3 program, and then a year later they’ll add a fourth and fifth grade, and then two years later they’ll add middle school, and then four years, five years down the road they might add a high school,” he said. “It was clear from the stakeholders: They wanted a K-12 right away because that’s really how you build a community.”
The Knik Cultural Charter School will offer in-person learning, a homeschool program and a blended option. Across the three programs, 192 students are pre-enrolled for the school year. The school will accommodate between 275 and 300 students for in-person learning and up to 300 in the homeschool program, according to the charter application.
The homeschool program will be available to students statewide. There’s just one other statewide correspondence program based in Wasilla, Mat-Su Central, and it serves more than 2,000 students.
At Knik Cultural Charter School, students will learn traditional skills throughout the year — from berry picking in September to hunting on sea ice in March. Classes will follow the Mat-Su Borough School District’s curriculum and state graduation requirements.
The public charter school “is open to all students,” Chamblee said.
He said most of the 10 teachers they’ve hired came from within the school district.
[With just weeks until classes resume, schools across Alaska are struggling to find teachers]
Over the next two weeks, staff will assemble 19 portable buildings donated to the school by the Anchorage School District. It’ll be between Wasilla and Palmer near the North Seward Meridian Parkway.
Chamblee said the Knik Tribe has a building with a commercial kitchen already on the property, which they’ll use to provide hot meals in partnership with the Mat-Su school district.
“There’s multiple charter schools here in the Valley. This will be the only one which will provide hot lunches and breakfast through the school district’s nutritional services program,” he said. “That’s a barrier for other families to attend charter schools.”
Another barrier they want to address is transportation. That’s still in the planning stages, but eventually, they’d like to have two buses meeting students at pickup spots at either end of the borough.
The school will also have a before- and after-school STEM program and other child care available to families.
“It’s very important to us that we reduce as many barriers as we can and give more families access to things they desire and need,” said Isha Twitchell, who heads the school’s academic policy committee.
Chamblee said offering an Alaska Native cultural education in the borough is important. He previously worked in Kotzebue as a teacher and principal, and he wants Knik Cultural Charter School to support families who’ve moved from rural Alaska to the Mat-Su.
“All different groups across the state are represented here in the Valley,” Chamblee said. “The school district has doubled in 15 years. It’s the fastest growing school district in the state. So right along with that is the Alaska Native/American Indian population that’s also growing. So we’re hoping to create a little community within the community.”
The tribe will host an informational meeting on Aug. 11 for families interested in learning more about the school. They can register for the school year through the Mat-Su Borough School District’s website.