Education

As Anchorage’s Abbott Loop Elementary is singled out for closure, parents there worry about being the ‘experiment’

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In Anchorage, some families are feeling cautious relief as their neighborhood elementary school is set to remain open next year. Others are reckoning with the closure of one local school starting next fall.

In October, the Anchorage School District recommended closing six neighborhood elementary schools, citing both a budget crunch and continually dropping enrollment. For months, uncertainty loomed. There was a series of packed, emotional public meetings. Would Klatt, Birchwood, Nunaka Valley, Northwood, Abbott Loop or Wonder Park elementary schools be open on the first day of classes next year?

The decision is ultimately up to the school board, and members indicated in December that they planned to close only Abbott Loop, while keeping the others open for the time being.

Closing Abbott Loop would save the district nearly $1 million for each of the first two years after its closure. Unlike other schools on the closure list, which officials had suggested turning into charter schools or preschool academies, Abbott Loop would instead be transitioned back to the municipality, which owns the property. Board members mostly agreed that amid likely future budget woes, the school’s closure was inevitable.

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For Rick Whitbeck, who is the president of the parent-teacher organization at Abbott Loop and whose son goes to school there, the decision last month “was nothing short of disgusting to me.”

[Anchorage School District proposes lengthening school days, altering calendar to make up for snow closures]

“I don’t think they’re going back on that decision,” Whitbeck said. “Certainly, my plea would be: Go back on that decision and don’t single out our kids.”

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Whitbeck said the roughly $974,000 saved by closing Abbott Loop makes it seem like officials are saying that the school and its families are disposable. Even if the closure was inevitable, Whitbeck said singling out one school and not waiting a year is bad policy.

“We’re the throwaway kids,” he said.

‘The biggest concern is that we try to do this right’

Board president Margo Bellamy said her decision to vote in favor of guidance that would close Abbott Loop took into account low enrollment and limited resources, the amount of work the elementary school building needs, how close neighboring schools are to Abbott Loop and that the closure could provide the ability to increase access to certain programs and specialists.

The school district and school board face a $48 million budget deficit, caused by a mix of mostly flat state education funding, inflation and a dropoff in federal pandemic funding.

Board members approved a series of preliminary cuts, closures and other methods to help solve the shortfall as guidance for district officials, who said they needed to know which schools would be open next year. But board members won’t vote on a final budget until February.

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Whitbeck said his concern now is making sure that the Abbott Loop closure won’t result in families falling through the cracks.

“If it’s only one school, and we’re the lab rat, then you better make sure that the experiment doesn’t fail,” he said.

The Anchorage School District doesn’t have a lot of experience closing schools, said school board member Andy Holleman. Holleman initially voted in favor of a failed motion to keep all schools open next year, then ultimately voted for the closure.

“The biggest concern is that we try to do this right,” Holleman said.

The district is going to close more schools in the future, he said.

“This is going to be with us for a while,” Holleman said. “If we just closed one school this year, then we absolutely will be back looking at more, unless the public stood up and said, ‘No, the local neighborhood schools are important enough to us that we will fund a district even if it’s running somewhat inefficiently,’ and I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

Anchorage supports good education, but residents want to feel like it’s carried out in an efficient way, he said.

“I think this is an adjustment we’re gonna go through, but it’s gonna matter to try to do it in a way that does the least harm,” Holleman said.

Concern for low-income students and families

Abbott Loop — along with all but one of the other schools initially recommended for closure — is a Title I school, which means the school’s roughly 250 students receive certain benefits because a majority of students come from low-income households.

According to Whitbeck, who is a parent representative on both state and district Title I committees, there are more than 100 families at the school that rely on Title I services, including child care, migrant education, counseling and free breakfast and lunch. It’s not yet clear whether Trailside and Kasuun, the two schools Abbott Loop students will be transferred to, will gain Title I status.

[After this year’s school bond failed, the Anchorage School Board is proposing a smaller one for 2023]

Families may now need to individually fill out paperwork to qualify and register for those services.

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Patrick Hopstad, whose older daughter went to Abbott Loop and whose younger daughter is in school there now, said the demographics of the schools recommended for closure should have been considered.

“As a Title I school, you can already imagine some of these families are hurting more than others,” Hopstad said.

Some students already have adverse childhood experiences, and throwing in a new school, a new experience and a new culture “could very well make it harder for some of these kids who are already going through hard times,” he said.

‘This isn’t over’

Meanwhile, families and advocates of the five schools that the board opted to keep open breathed a sigh of relief after the school board’s vote.

“We are all super happy and excited that it’s not closing. But we are kind of like, ‘Well, what about the next year and the following year?’ ” said Airis Messick, PTA president and parent of a student at Northwood.

Jessica Louwerse, PTA president at Klatt Elementary with a son and daughter attending the school, said that there was a desire among families and staff to reach a decision and proceed, which has provided more solid footing.

Klatt Elementary

There’s some excitement that their voices were heard, she said, and the school community can go back to focusing on academics.

“There’s still kind of a lingering sense of this isn’t over for the whole school district,” Louwerse said. “Klatt’s in a really good place and everyone’s pretty excited to be able to settle back into a normal rhythm and to move forward with the exciting things that we have been planning, but still recognizing that the district has a lot of big decisions ahead of them, and that families across the community are going to be impacted one way or another.”

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Louwerse said she’s now shifting her focus to advocate on a statewide level, to show legislators the importance of increasing the per-student funding the state provides to districts around Alaska. She noticed that over the months of public meetings while school closures were being debated, people primarily being impacted tended to step forward.

“But really, as I’ve understood the recommendations by the district, I recognize that it really is a community-level impact,” she said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not include an increase to education funding in his recently proposed budget in December, though he acknowledged “there are inflationary issues that need to be addressed” for the state’s schools. Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said in a statement that the governor’s recognition of that pressure on schools was encouraging, and that he looked forward to working with both legislators and the governor on the issue.

Louwerse said she encourages families in the district to advocate, whether or not their programs or schools are currently on the chopping block.

“Our voices collectively can make a really big difference in keeping and then expanding the programs that the district can offer our kiddos,” she said. “And that, even if they weren’t on the list now, it could be next year, if nothing changes.”

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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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