At Anchorage’s Klatt Elementary, staff and parents worry about transition for low-income and special education students if school closes

Klatt is one of six Anchorage School District elementary schools that could close due to a budget crunch. Community members say Klatt students are well-supported at the school, by staff who have been willing to work there long-term.

Klatt Elementary principal Kelsey Deiman-Szymanski hears the same question repeated again and again from parents and staff these days. And she doesn’t have a specific answer.

Why Klatt?

Weeks ago, Anchorage School District officials identified Klatt as one of six schools that could close due to a budget crunch. Now, the South Anchorage school’s educators and families are fighting for its future, saying its distinct student populations are well-supported by veteran staff.

Three-quarters of Klatt’s students are bused there from the Dimond Estates Mobile Home Park roughly 3.5 miles away. The school is also home to 30 special education students, and for them, transitioning to a new school will bring added difficulties. School district officials have so far not told Klatt families with special education students where they would go school if the closure happens, saying they don’t want to announce a location and later have it change.

Jessica Louwerse is the school’s PTA president and lives in Dimond Estates. She worries that for students, switching to a different school would disintegrate a fabric of support built over years. That fallout would land squarely on individual students, Louwerse said.

“In the research that I’ve done, the children who are most affected by school closures and who suffer the most academically are low-income students and students with disabilities,” Louwerse said. “And both of those are a huge part of what makes up the Klatt community.”

Unlike the other schools listed for potential closure, which have capacities hovering at half to two-thirds full, Klatt is more than 90% full with students.

District officials have said they took Klatt’s relatively small size and the distance students live from the school into account when making the recommendations.

[Anchorage School District says it will restore full bus service in December]

Deiman-Szymanski said her understanding of why the district included Klatt has to do with the distance between Klatt and the Dimond Estates community it serves. It’s true that other schools are closer, she said.

“But I don’t think they understand the feeling of losing part of your family,” she said.

‘Generations of support and understanding’

Louwerse said she lives in Dimond Estates in part because she wanted to be part of the Klatt community and have her children attend school there.

“That’s generations of support and understanding of the community that cannot be learned overnight,” she said.

Like four of the other schools recommended for closure, Klatt is a Title I school, which means a majority of families are low-income. Around 200 of the school’s 356 students are either bilingual or their primary language isn’t English. Some parents are working multiple jobs. Some families have language barriers, Louwerse said.

During the pandemic, families in Dimond Estates oftentimes could not pick up student materials and technical support, and so Klatt staff went door-to-door to deliver those things on their own time, Louwerse said. The school also set up a mobile library and drove to Dimond Estates to bring books.

[Anchorage School District proposes moving 6th grade to middle school to reduce costs]

“If we know that families don’t have food, or, you know, proper winter clothing, that can be brought to the forefront,” Louwerse said. “And then individual staff and parents go above and beyond to make sure that those families have those needs met.”

There is a washer and dryer at the school. The school also has donated clothing, extra backpacks and shelf-stable meals to take home on weekends.

There’s longevity among staff, too. Many Klatt teachers have been there for years, if not decades.

Teachers know which families typically need extra support, including interpreters, without needing to do that research every year, said Krista Sandhoefner, a teacher who has been at the school for 16 years.

“I think one of our biggest fears is dividing up the community and putting them into new schools,” she said.

Under the district’s plans, students in the nearby neighborhood would attend Ocean View Elementary, while Dimond Estates students would go to Campbell STEM Elementary.

Louwerse said she feels sadness and loss over her two children potentially having to switch schools. There’s an interlacing of relationships between the neighborhood students who live near Klatt and the students who live in Dimond Estates, she said.

“Some of those relationships will be severed,” she said.

Louwerse’s daughter, Ava, 10, testified about the potential closure during a town hall hosted by the district.

“I was really devastated,” Ava said of hearing Klatt could close. “Because I’ve been at Klatt since kindergarten for six years. This is my family.”

Ava’s friend, Camilla Martinez, who is also 10, said she wanted to stand up with Ava during the testimony.

“I’ve been Klatt my whole life, for the six years, and my other five older siblings attended Klatt for the six years too,” she said. “And my little sister is going to be coming to preschool next year if it doesn’t close.”

The ‘Believe Room’

On a recent morning, as students were filing into the building, Klatt principal Deiman-Szymanski showed off a new room. The walls are a dark navy. There’s soothing music, softly flashing string lights, weighted balls for throwing and a reading loft. The fluorescent lights are covered with an illustration of tree tops and branches. A mural by local artist Katie Sevigny is painted on the wall.

The room is the one of the first sensory classrooms in the district — where students can come to reflect and regulate their behavior in various areas of the room.

“It’s all based on your senses and how you feel, and then having a calm, reflective place to be,” Deiman-Szymanski said.

At Klatt, it’s called the “Believe Room.” Each week, students can go in for 30-minute blocks to assess their feelings and go to different parts of the room with different activities based on how they feel.

The school applied for a grant to pay for the room. Deiman-Szymanski knew students were coping with trauma, especially following the pandemic.

And sensory activities are a component of the school’s structured learning classes, which draw students from all over the district. The 30 students, mainly on the autism spectrum, are split into three smaller classes.

Among those students, social skills and transitions can come as a challenge. While the thought is that staff will follow students, it’s not clear yet, Deiman-Szymanski said.

“It’s really heartbreaking to think that a high school might move in,” Deiman-Szymanski said, standing in the dark blue room, referencing the district’s plan to put Highland Academy or the district’s correspondence program in the school building.

There’s a second half of the grant, too. It’s meant for a sensory garden that would be built and planted in the spring, depending on what the school board decides.

‘It’s a profound change’

District officials have yet to tell families of Klatt’s special needs students where they would end up if the school shuts its doors to elementary children. In an emailed statement, senior director of special education Tarlesha Wayne said the district has experience with moving programs like Klatt’s, and is researching options.

[In East Anchorage, families and neighbors reckon with the potential closure of a beloved elementary school]

“We never want to announce a location for a program and have to change it once or multiple times based on uncontrolled factors,” she wrote.

Wayne said the district understands the need for transition planning and that they want to consider the emotional toll it can take on those impacted.

Danna Hoellering is the guardian of her grandson Daniel. The 8-year-old was watching Power Rangers on a tablet and eating McDonald’s on a recent Thursday evening — a treat after his speech therapy.

Daniel is autistic and semi-verbal, and he’s enrolled in one of Klatt’s structured learning classes. Hoellering said she’s never felt that he was unsafe or not being included at Klatt. Instead, Daniel is integrated into the student population, she said.

“They’re just another classroom. It’s not that these guys are special in any way. They are just another peer,” she said.

Daniel is loving. When he’s excited to see someone, he’ll give them a hug and a kiss on the cheek, including peers. While most students would recoil, Klatt students just ask him to give them a high-five instead, Hoellering said.

“It’s a complete inclusion,” she said. Special education students “are invited to every event that occurs. They are encouraged to come to these events. I mean, the principal knows each of them by name.”

The staff at Klatt is steady, and they know each student’s traits, she said. And that’s something that worries her: Will the staff in the program follow the students?

“That’s huge with these little guys, is keeping those things as constant as possible,” she said. “And they know where he’s at, level-wise ... not just where they’re at, but how they learn. That’s big.”

Hoellering watched the difficulties Daniel faced amid virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s finally starting to get back into the groove of learning in-person again.

Hoellering said she just wants officials and board members to consider their actions.

“What they’re doing is not just money on a piece of paper, right? What they’re doing is going to affect him for years to come,” she said. “And not just, ‘We’re changing to a new teacher, we’ve moved to a new town,’ like a kid would be anywhere else in the district. But these kids, it’s a profound change.”

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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow covers education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Before joining the ADN, she interned for The Washington Post. Contact her at