Education

Worries brew about future of successful learning program at Eagle River school on closure list

Birchwood ABC, school closure proposal

Families at Birchwood ABC are worried about the fate of both their school and a much-loved, successful learning program. Birchwood is one of six elementary schools the Anchorage School District has proposed closing.

The ABC program, which stands for the Anchorage Basic Curriculum, builds on foundations of math and reading, paired with a focus on developing specific character traits, like respect, leadership and citizenship. The school frequently has high scores and growth metrics in the school district’s reading and math assessments.

“This program is so good,” said Rachel Arvelo, the school’s secretary, who also has a daughter in fifth grade at at the Eagle River elementary school. “I wish that all of ASD was using it. I wish every kid had access to this.”

Arvelo’s daughter began at the school in fourth grade. She regrets not starting her daughter at the school earlier. Arvelo’s daughter swiftly picked up the work and was placed in the gifted program.

Birchwood ABC, school closure proposal

She loves working at the school, too. Birchwood is like a puzzle, with all pieces fitting together perfectly, she said.

“Having to uproot that puzzle,” Arvelo said, “you’re losing pieces.”

The ABC program is a back-to-basics, traditional way of teaching and focuses on math and reading, said Julie Sery, a director of elementary education at the district.

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ABC schools have historically performed in the top 15% of the district, Sery said, along with schools like Chugach Optional, Huffman and Bayshore. Those schools also have high levels of parent involvement, common among all of the successful schools, she said.

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

Birchwood and five other Anchorage elementary schools were recommended for closure starting next year by a consultant the district hired amid a serious budget shortfall. Facing a $68 million deficit, the district’s administration is proposing various cuts and closures, including school consolidations, eliminating certain programs and making changes to some sports. According to recent estimates put forth by the district, closing the six schools would save around $4.1 million for the first two years.

Birchwood is the only neighborhood school in the Anchorage School District with the ABC program. It began with a parent group in 1980 and is unique to Anchorage, but other schools around the country use similar curriculum resources.

Birchwood ABC, school closure proposal

The school and its ABC program focuses on mastering certain foundations. If a student has a strong grasp on multiplication and division, then fractions and decimals come more easily, which eventually transfer to algebra and pre-algebra, Thomas said. Similarly, the school places an early focus on phonics.

The intense focus on reading and math keep students from missing out on certain aspects of learning, Thomas said.

Much like other schools on the closure list, the school has a low capacity, and is 51% full. Birchwood is the only non-Title I school recommended for closure, and the only one of the six located in Eagle River.

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

If the plan to close Birchwood goes through, students would be moved to Homestead Elementary in Eagle River, while a charter school, Eagle Academy, would move into the Birchwood building. Under the district’s plans, the ABC program would move to Homestead Elementary and operate as a school-within-a-school.

Birchwood ABC, school closure proposal

Parents understand that the ABC program could be moved, which it would under the district’s plans, but they worry it won’t be the same, said the school’s principal, Michael Thomas.

“And in reality, it won’t be the same, but a lot of the core foundational pieces will still go with that,” he said.

In fact, after the 2018 earthquake, Eagle River Elementary students came to Birchwood during repair of their school, and the school had two programs running side by side. That is what they’ve proposed with the ABC program next year, Thomas said.

Initially, Birchwood parent Robin Gabel had not wanted to send her daughter to kindergarten in the district, but said after learning about Birchwood, she gave it a try. She said her daughter’s outcomes have been “impeccable.”

Birchwood ABC, school closure proposal

“She has a culture at that school that’s very character development-driven, which is inseparable in their curriculum, meaning, without good character development, it’s going to be hard to do well, educationally,” Gabel said.

Gabel said the costs and benefits of closing six schools doesn’t work out to her. And she said she doesn’t have confidence in the plan to keep the ABC program up at Homestead, so she’s looking at private and charter schools for next year.

“I don’t see myself being satisfied with her moving elsewhere,” Gabel said.

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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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