The Kenai Peninsula’s biggest schools offer students an abundance of choice — in academics, extracurriculars and more

Last in a series: The more students a school has, the more specialized classes and creative extracurriculars it can offer — options that are a hallmark of some of the largest schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

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

SOLDOTNA — In Soldotna, the Kenai Peninsula Borough seat and location of the school district office, high school looks a lot like it does in many American cities. Football, prom and a lot of academic choices.

“When we create our master schedule, we create it with student interests in mind,” said Soldotna High School Principal Sargeant Truesdell. “And we try to fill all of the squares with things that will inspire students as to what they want to do next, as well as meet all of their graduation requirements.”

The more students a school has, the more specialized classes and creative extracurriculars it can offer. Those options are a hallmark of some of the largest schools on the Kenai Peninsula.

Truesdell says the breadth of options is his school’s greatest asset, and something they’re able to offer thanks to the economies of scale. There are about 650 students, smaller than the average American high school but larger than any other in this district. The building’s halls are lined with lockers, which students use to show off their extracurricular activities: drumline, track, volleyball, football.

More than half of SoHi students participate in sports. Phil Leck is the school’s full-time athletic director, and a major proponent of the impact sports can have on a child’s education.

“I think they’re the No. 1 intervention in all public high schools,” Leck said. “You’re gonna find kids every single year that walk across that stage because of athletics, and because of no other reason.”

Leck said that’s because most coaches are teachers at the school who receive an “extremely modest” stipend to coach outside their teaching hours. He said having an extra set of eyes on kids outside of class, and the extra level of support, makes all the difference.


SoHi has a dedicated weight room with dozens of squat racks that looks out over the traditional gym. Students practice shooting hoops and volley pingpong balls below.

It’s not just sports that are well-resourced here. SoHi boasts two art teachers — one for just ceramics — an array of music courses and technical classes like aviation, cosmetology and construction.

Construction teacher Tim White is helping his class through building full-scale, functional sheds and cabins.

“We’re trying to get kids in the shop, we’re trying to get them working, using the power tools, the same power tools that are used in the industry, and the same building practices and same building sciences,” White said. “And kids love it. I run all day long just trying to keep up with them.”

Kenai Middle School

Twenty minutes away in Kenai, the district’s largest middle school is also a bustling site of extracurriculars. Kenai Middle has more than 400 students. A third of the students are Alaska Native and a quarter are on individualized education plans.

“A lot of things that we’ve been able to do, even with cuts, is keep a lot of interesting classes,” said Principal Vaughn Dosko. “We have a lot of electives. Kids will go to a language arts class, or they’ll go to a math class, if they know they get to go to home ec, or a shop class, or they get to go to art. So a lot of those classes that kids enjoy, we’ve been able to keep.”

Vice Principal Ken Felchle teaches one of his own — an Alaska hunting and fishing class. The course came about at a time of declining school funding, when Kenai Middle lost specialty courses.

“When that happened, our administration came to core teachers and said, ‘We’re losing two major elective classes, what can you offer that we could create exploratory classes that did not exist?’” he said.

Felchle said the spirit of interesting classes stayed alive through teachers stepping up and offering their personal skills. He now helps kids get hunting and fishing certifications in middle school.

Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School

That same philosophy reigns at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, the district’s largest at 420 students. In the packed building, interventionists use the hallways to work one-on-one with students, and administrators say the above-and-beyond efforts of teachers make all the difference — like one who stepped up to host an after-school music club when the school was unable to fill its posted position.

“Teachers who are in the field love kids and love what they do,” said Principal Janae Van Slyke. But there’s been a lot of additional things added on to teachers, and then there’s not been the pay increase to match the economy.”

This year, one of the biggest examples has been the rollout of the Alaska Reads Act. Teachers say the adjustment to frequent testing, a new curriculum and parental anxieties about their children’s progress has been an added burden on kindergarten through third-grade teachers.


There’s also just the sheer number of students.

“I think any teacher would tell you class size is going to be, like, a No. 1 challenge,” said sixth-grade teacher Diane Smreka.

The current student-to-teacher ratio at K-Beach is as high as 28 in fourth-grade classes. This year, amid deep budget cuts, the district may increase its ratio by one at all large elementary schools.

K-Beach still finds time for individualized education with a daily schoolwide hour called WIN (“What I Need”) time. It’s a period of differentiated education for all students that allows teachers and interventionists to work closely with special needs or advanced students.

That approach continues through secondary education. Truesdell, the Soldotna High principal, said a bit more than half of his students go to college or vocational school after graduating, and the rest go directly into the workforce. He’s passionate about legitimizing any path a student may take.

“We want to make sure that every single one of our graduating seniors felt like whichever one of those camps they were in, whether they’re going to college, going directly to work, or going into some kind of vo-tech or apprenticeship type thing, that that was great if that’s what they wanted,” Truesdell said.

• • •

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. Read the full series here.