On the Kenai Peninsula, a singular school district serves fly-in villages, Russian Old Believers and road-system residents

With 42 schools spread across a sprawling region encompassing a diverse array of communities, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is one of the most unique school districts in the U.S., according to its superintendent.

This is the first in a five-part series about the wide range of school communities on the Kenai Peninsula.

SOLDOTNA — Clayton Holland is the superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Every three months, he goes before the borough’s governing body to give an update on the district. And every time, he starts by saying something like this:

“I’d say it’s the most unique school district in Alaska, maybe the United States.”

“We’re probably the most diverse district in the entire nation, at least in the state of Alaska.”

“Probably the most unique district that you can find, 10th largest geographically in the entire nation.”

The Southcentral Alaska school district is one of the largest in the country by area, and is home to 42 schools that push the boundaries of public education.

Plenty of school districts in Alaska serve a more rural population. And plenty, like Anchorage and Fairbanks, have a more traditional urban school district.

But the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, or KPBSD, serves more than 8,000 students in schools with populations that range from 16 to 600. There are four schools in Alaska Native villages only accessible by plane or boat. Several schools serve a population of almost all Russian Old Believers, an offshoot of Eastern Orthodoxy that settled in Alaska in the 1960s. Nine schools in the district have fewer than 30 students, many with just one or two teachers who serve a K-12 population.


There’s a scattering of other specialty schools, too. Four charters, two alternative schools for students who’ve fallen behind academically, a school for students currently incarcerated in the local prison system and a district-run homeschool program.

“From our across-the-water schools to our on-road-system K-12s, to larger high schools, some very different communities,” Holland said during one presentation. “But we are united as one district. That’s been a big focus for me, is that we are not operating independently. You do have your autonomy, we do have to have that with our people because we’re so big, but we operate as one district.”

The district is struggling financially. School funding has been stagnant in Alaska since 2017, despite inflation; the district is facing a $13 million budget shortfall, and recently approved almost $8 million in cuts that will reduce teachers, support staff and extracurricular funding, and close pools and theaters, unless a funding increase from the state Legislature comes through.

Staff recruitment and retention looms over each new school year; Holland has said the district is lucky to get one good applicant for an open position.

The challenge of operating such a complex district is that those financial and recruitment struggles hit schools differently. While closing pools and theaters will only impact the biggest schools in the district, some outlying schools began the year without a principal, or had complete staff turnover over the course of a semester. For the smallest schools, retaining at least 10 students is critical to staying open and receiving state funding.

Christy Gomez, a principal-teacher at one of the district’s most rural schools in Tyonek, said staff turnover can erode the trust between small communities and their schools. She’s trying to combat that.

“What keeps me here is the fact that we’re intentional, we’ve been here a long time, we’re invested, and we care about giving hope to the future of our villages,” Gomez said. “That’s what’s kept me here, and keeps me going.”

And in the smallest schools, employees are pulled in every direction during periods of understaffing.

“When people take on extra tasks that are outside of their job description, they should be compensated fairly for taking on those extra tasks,” said Susanna Litwiniak, the school secretary at the 20-student Moose Pass School, and the president of the district’s support staff union. “And it’s not just small schools anymore, because there’s so much understaffing everywhere.”

Another omnipresent issue is building maintenance. A $65 million bond that passed in 2022 will solve some of the district’s deferred maintenance issues. But some schools, like Kachemak-Selo on the southern peninsula, need an entirely new building. Principal Mike Wojciak said the community has been waiting for over a decade.

“Everything about this building is in tough shape. This school, I believe, was deemed the worst school in Alaska, and that’s why we were given that matched funding,” Wojciak said. “And now we’re waiting, 10 years later.”

The district’s largest schools do their best to offer diverse options for courses and extracurriculars, but budget cuts and staffing issues can cut away at those options, or put a larger burden on remaining teachers.


At Kenai Middle School, the biggest middle school in the district, “it’s a lot,” Vice Principal Ken Felchle said.

“Sometimes it becomes overwhelming,” Felchle said. “Like, I will be honest with you, there’s some times that I’ve felt, in my 28 years here, that, ‘Gosh, we try to do too much.’”

The district-wide graduation rate is about 80%, a bit higher than the statewide average. In the state’s new standardized testing system, the district scored slightly higher than the state average as well, but is looking toward another year of data, which will provide the baseline testing administrators say they need to set goals for academic growth.

As Superintendent Holland is fond of saying, the purpose of the district isn’t to educate one type of student.

“I think people sometimes forget that we are here for every single child in the peninsula. That it’s not just their kid, or similar children,” he said.

That’s a message he has not just for Kenai Peninsula residents, but for the legislators whose decisions can affect the finances of the district, and the opportunities students have.


“We take all students, where they come to us from, what level they’re at … and our goal is to have growth,” Holland said.

On its mission to educate every single student in every type of place, KPBSD oversees a vast range of schools that push the limits of public education. This series will visit the smallest and largest, the least and most traditional, for a look at education in perhaps the most unique district in the country.

Next: A look at the multigrade education that happens in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s smaller road-system schools, serving the most rural communities.

• • •

This reporting project, which originally appeared on KDLL and is republished here with permission, is supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Alaska Impact Reporting Initiative grant.