Robotics, Spelling, Poetry: Skagway School Expands Academic Extracurriculars

The Thought Bots at the Anchorage robotics competition. (Courtesy Heather Rodig)
The Thought Bots at the Anchorage robotics competition. (Courtesy Heather Rodig)

Sports like basketball are well-supported at schools around Southeast Alaska. But in Skagway, the superintendent and school board have made a deliberate effort to extend activities beyond athletics.

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In the past two years, the 90-student school has increased the number of academic extra-curriculars offered. Those activities benefit students in ways similar to sports — with travel, competition and a boost to students’ self-confidence.

If there’s one team Skagway School is known for, it’s robotics. Sophomore Denver Evans says being on the robotics team for three years in middle school helped her in an unexpected way.

“I was an extremely shy kid,” she said. “We had to give our presentation to a room of 200 or 300 people. And getting up on stage was petrifying. But now I have no problem speaking in front of people, and my little sister is the same way.”

“I really think it’s opening me up so I can be more out there,” said Denver’s little sister, Peyton Rodig, who is in 6th grade. “‘Cause I used to really be like, not wanting to talk to anybody.”

This Rodig’s second year on the hugely successful robotics team, which is part of the FIRST Lego League. Her mother is the head coach this year.

“Well our team’s gotten a reputation in Juneau,” said assitant coach Greg Clem. “We are the ones that the other teams go out to outdo.”

Clem says the Skagway team has won the regional competition in Juneau several times, and then gone on to place well at nationals and internationals. They placed second at the state-wide robotics competition in Anchorage this year, and they’ll be traveling to the national competition in California soon.

Clem has seen the impact robotics has had on his son Dawson.

“He started out as the introvert over behind the table not wanting to be part of it,” Clem said. “And now he’s a big part of the team. The little shy, stand-off — you can’t do that.”

The Thought Bots placed first at the Juneau regional competition. (Courtesy Denise Sager)
The Thought Bots placed first at the Juneau regional competition. (Courtesy Denise Sager)

The success of robotics has set a good precedent for the school to try out other academic extracurriculars. The school registered in the Scripps Spelling Bee this year. Last year, the high school started a poetry competition. And also this year, students who enjoy math can compete in a program called Math Counts.

Skagway School Board President John Hischer says the board has made it a priority to encourage academic competitions. He says they help reinforce what students learn in class.

“When you think about your school experience, what are the things that you remember most?” Hischer said. “It’s not usually what you learn in a textbook, it’s when you go out and apply it in the real world or apply it in a competition.”

“I decided to compete because I just love spelling,” said 5th grader Tatum Sager. “Whenever I’m in my spelling class I always look forward to spelling.”

Sager won the school spelling bee this year, but she and the second place winner aren’t able to travel to the state competition. So, Callia Feilding, the third place winner, will go to Anchorage instead.

Another person traveling to a state competition soon is high school junior Al Weber. She’ll recite poems including “Life Cycle of Common Man” by Howard Nemerov at the Poetry Out Loud event in Anchorage.

“[The poem] actually made sense to me, like it sounded like a story in my head,” Weber said. “So, I went with it, because that’s what poems should be, they should be stories.”

Kent Fielding is the teacher who organized the Poetry Out Loud program at Skagway School. He’ll also be the coach for DDF — Drama, Debate and Forensics. That’s an extracurricular that Skagway School is bringing back next year after a few years without it.

With so many activities, and only about 90 students, School Board president Hischer says there is one concern.

“What I see [as] the big danger is kids spreading themselves too thin with so many things,” Hischer said.

That could be a problem as the school adds DDF to its list of options. But Superintendent Josh Coughran says they might remedy that by making DDF an elective class during the school-day instead of an after-school program.

“That way they can devote that time and energy it takes to be really good at DDF while still supporting teammates on, say, a vollyball or wrestling team.”

Coughran says the financial burden of activities hasn’t been a problem for the school district. He says the community is very supportive when teams need to fundraise for travel expenses.

“If there’s anything that I’ve learned about Skagway over the years it’s that they’re gonna find a way to get it done,” Coughran said.

Sixth grader Peyton Rodig says she’s found that two of her favorite activities — basketball and robotics — have something in common.

“You’re getting exercise in basketball, but you’re exercising your brain in robotics.”