On the heels of announcing potential school closures, Anchorage School District officials this week said they were recommending cutting and consolidating programs as they try to manage a major budget shortfall next school year.
The district last month recommended the closure of six district elementary schools as a way to save costs, but officials say they also need to make various changes and cuts to programs like language immersion and a gifted students program to make up for a nearly $68 million deficit.
At a Tuesday work session, district officials recommended ending language immersion at eighth grade instead of twelfth, in favor of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses for ninth and tenth graders.
“If money weren’t an issue, I don’t think we would make these changes,” said Kersten Johnson, director of secondary education for the district. “But money is an issue so it’s causing us to make hard choices.”
If students also need higher level courses, the district would then consider dual credit language course options at the university level, potentially partnering with a local college like University of Alaska Anchorage, Johnson said. Cultural trips and exchange programs would still be offered, and students would still receive an immersion graduation cord if they completed the programming through eighth grade.
When students leave elementary immersion programs, they speak and understand the languages well, but there are holes in their vocabulary and grammar, which is why the secondary immersion program was developed, said Brandon Locke, director of the district’s world languages and immersion programs.
The district is considered a national leader in language immersion, Locke said at a Tuesday work session. About 2,700 students are in the district’s language immersion programs, according to the district.
“What would be the purpose of, say starting a kindergartener in French next year, knowing that it’s going to end in just a few years? So I think that’s going to automatically cause enrollment issues in our current programs at the elementary level,” Locke said.
The district also recommended capping three elementary school immersion programs, instead of having them extend into middle schools. Under the recommendations, they would stop Chinese immersion at Scenic Park at fifth grade, and French immersion at O’Malley Elementary and Yup’ik immersion at College Gate would stop at sixth grade.
District chief financial officer Jim Anderson said if the district’s financial situation changes in future years, officials could add more grade levels.
Parents and students involved in the school district’s immersion programs have already showed up to school board meetings this year to voice concern about cuts or changes.
“All the current effort and progress will be largely a wasted if children are not allowed to finish the program,” Mark Kobylinski, a parent of a language immersion student wrote in public testimony for an October school board meeting. “Foreign language fluency does not fully develop until (a child) nears the end of the program in high school.”
Another recommendation the district presented Tuesday was to change the current model for a gifted students program called IGNITE, potentially shifting instruction to an online course via Canvas, though officials said they were still working on options. Highly gifted programs, located at Rogers Park Elementary, Romig Middle School and West High School, would continue without changes, Anderson said.
Anchorage School District officials also recommended consolidating the ACT program, a special education program for adult students ages 18 to 21 in five locations around the district. In their proposal, the program would get moved to a single location, saving the district on leasing and busing costs. Officials said they are still looking for a specific location.
“It would be more efficient, it would save dollars, and at the end of the day, we’d provide more opportunities for the kids,” Anderson said in an interview.
The school district has yet to officially recommend additional cuts to the school board, but has been presenting to the board various expenses throughout the district, and will likely recommend several more cuts as the weeks go on.
Officials must pass a balanced budget in February and somehow make up for the $68 million shortfall. During the presentations, officials also have discussed moving sixth grade to middle school, administrative cuts, and changes to district sports programs, among others.
What could happen to shuttered elementary schools
Officials also presented their plan for repurposing the six elementary schools recommended for closure.
At Birchwood ABC, Eagle Academy, a charter school, could be a new tenant. Another district charter school, Highland Academy, as well as PAIDEIA, the district’s statewide correspondence school, would be moved to Klatt Elementary.
At Nunaka Valley, district officials recommended building a new entity, which they called a pre-Kindergarten academy. They recommended the same for Northwood Elementary. Officials also said the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, which has been housed in a wing of East High School, could potentially move to Wonder Park Elementary alongside STEM-based charter school, STREAM Academy.
The district has no plans to move any programs to Abbott Loop Elementary, and officials said the district would work with the municipality to decide what to do with the building.
“We have some work to do with both of those schools to see if it’s acceptable,” said district chief financial officer Jim Anderson in Wednesday interview.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said 8,000 students are enrolled in immersion, but that is the number of students enrolled in all world language programs, including both immersion and non-immersion programs.