Teaching multiple grades at once in outlying road-system schools on the Kenai Peninsula

Small school populations mean individualized education, multigrade extracurriculars and an entirely distinct social environment.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a five-part series about the wide range of school communities on the Kenai Peninsula.

MOOSE PASS — On an early morning in December, 22 students gather on a makeshift stage in a school gym, rehearsing for a holiday performance of “Twas One Crazy Night Before Christmas.” The show is an ‘80s comedic twist on a classic Christmas play, and every student at the Moose Pass School is in the show.

Three of the Kenai Peninsula’s smallest schools, including Moose Pass, are connected to the road system, but serve small towns where they become a community hub. Small populations mean individualized education, multigrade extracurriculars and an entirely distinct social environment.

In a grade school as small as this, extracurriculars like theater, skiing or robotics are for everyone, and there are just two multigrade classes: a group for kindergarten through third grade called the Wolves, and the fourth- and fifth-grade Sea Otters.

Sandra Barron is the only teacher at the school for grades K-8, although the current population only goes up to fifth grade. She designs a schedule for multigrade classrooms that allows for students in one room to learn all required district curricula. Sometimes, that looks like a lesson delivered to everyone, followed by individualized work based on academic level.

“So there’s a lesson with me, and then students would go back to their desk to continue working on, say, the assignment, and then others would be on the computer doing an interactive activity for learning that does change based upon that individual child,” she said.

Barron is assisted by two aides, a secretary and a part-time food service staff member. But with such a small staff, everyone ends up chipping in in lots of ways. In the last hour of the day, Susanna Litwiniak reads a book to the kids. She’s Moose Pass’s secretary, but also the de facto nurse and librarian.

Moose Pass has just one bus and one stop, at a halfway point to nearby Cooper Landing.


Cooper Landing School

The nearby community of Cooper Landing has its own K-12 school with 20 students.

The one-room Cooper Landing School is divided into two spaces, one for older grades and one for younger. A gym was added to the building later.

Sherry Dillon teaches kindergarten through third grade at the school. She said it’s complicated to organize the curriculum for her K-third class, but the students gain a lot of independence they might not have otherwise.

“One of the biggest things is really, kindergarten is so much play. And we only have one kindergartner. And she doesn’t have that benefit of other kindergartners,” Dillon said. “But on the other hand, she has an individual education plan, as we like to say, so she can go as fast as she wants.”

Hope School

An hour away, at the end of its own highway, Hope is a former gold rush town that was home to thousands at the height of prospecting. Today, the town has one small convenience store, no gas station and a K-12 school with 17 students.

Hope isn’t the one-room schoolhouse of Cooper Landing; the large facility offers ceramics, a woodshop, welding, a science lab, a fitness room, climbing wall and indoor archery range.

Christen Peck went to the Hope School when she was in high school, sent her own kids to the school, then became a teacher here herself seven years ago.

“It’s like coming home. Every day,” she said.

Peck said the relationship she forms with the middle and high school students as their only teacher is both a difficulty and a draw.

“Whatever lesson plan I have this year, I cannot do next year, because I’ll have all the same kids. So they’ll be bored,” she said. “So there’s constant mental gymnastics, and I think that part is very appealing. It is impossible to get into a rut.”

Peck and the Hope School’s elementary teacher, Jeremy McKibben, agree that there are positives and negatives to the multigrade classes. Until two years ago, McKibben worked at a traditional middle school in Kenai.

“Before, I was only having to deal with the fifth-grade curriculum. Now I have to deal with the kindergarten curriculum for math and reading, language arts, and I have to deal with the first-grade, second-grade, third-grade, fourth-grade and fifth-grade curriculum,” McKibben said. “So on the back end, preparing for work is a lot more. And then the tradeoff being that, in class, it’s probably less work that I’m doing, because there’s fewer students.”


On the last day before winter break, students participate in a schoolwide gift exchange. They’ve been paired across grades and the only rule is the gift has to be homemade.

Peck said activities like these are emblematic of something she’s observed in her own children and the students she’s taught — there’s very little teasing or bullying. Students tend to be kind and supportive of each other, and well-behaved.

“There isn’t an exclusion,” she said. “They’re very close knit, and that’s kind of cool, that they’re able to be themselves and not try to be something else to be cool.”

She said the one downside is kids may not have peers of their own age. That’s something they may experience for the first time after graduation.

All three schools pride themselves on being the heartbeat of their communities. Parents filter into the gym at the Hope School to watch as their children unwrap secret Santa gifts, while Moose Pass is expecting communitywide turnout at its Christmas play.

Next: Inside Russian Old Believer schools on the southern Kenai Peninsula.

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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.