Lower Kuskokwim Schools: New Leaders, New Changes

Students returned to classes recently across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Jacob Jensen says change is on the horizon for the district with the largest number of rural students in the state.

This year, the Lower Kuskokwim School District has new leadership at several schools. Superintendent, Jacob Jensen, says of the five schools in Bethel, three have had principal turnovers. Jensen.

“So we have three new principals. So the principal at Gladys Jung is the principal that’s been with LKSD for quite a long time at LKSD, I believe he’s on year 12, Chris Carmichael. The principal over at Immersion is a longtime LKSD employee, Mike Smith, who had retired and decided it did not suit him and came back. And then the new principal at BRHS has been a principal in Alaska for, I think nine years, her name is Elizabeth Balcerek,” said Jensen.

And the district is looking to reorganize behind the scenes. Right now, the district does a lot of what’s called site-based management, which means schools and principals have a lot of autonomy to do things like, set their own calendar, run their own lunch programs and hire their own staff. But Jenson says LKSD, for a number of reasons, is looking at more centralization.

“Possibly looking at things like having a centralized food service, as opposed to having each individual site kind of run their own, centralizing a lot of our technology has already happened. We’re looking at possibly maintenance, you know centralizing that. You know purchasing. We try to order the same types of vehicles and snow machines and four wheelers but we don’t really have any policies about that. So kinda looking at all those type of things,” said Jensen.

Jensen says LKSD is one of a handful of school districts in rural Alaska that still allows schools such autonomy. He says while local input and control are important for the district, officials may have to make serious budget changes in response to pressure from limited state and federal funds. He says the district can be more efficient with some centralized services.

Besides consolidating management of LKSD, Jensen says, district-wide accreditation is another major goal he hopes to accomplish this year.  Jensen says, also new this year, students will take fewer tests. That’s a result of the state’s waiver from No Child Left Behind.

“As far as the waiver, it doesn’t do a whole lot different other than listeners should know that it was by this year all of our students had to be 100 percent proficient, which was an unrealistic goal. So the state got a waiver and now we’re working on what is called a growth model so we’re making sure that kids are growing each and every year,” said Jensen.

In addition, the state high school graduation exam is no longer being given due to a proposal by Governor Sean Parnell that was approved by the state legislature this past year.

“It made it difficult for some students that could not pass that high school graduation exam. It caused some difficulties for some students who wanted to get into the military and go on to post-secondary options. I thinking it was a good idea when they put it in place. It was a little bit difficult in implementation. So, what’s happening now is that kids just have to meet the qualifying criteria of the school district,” Jensen says.

Jensen says two other state tests have also been eliminated, the ‘Terra-Nova’ and the State of Alaska Standards Based Assessment test also known as the SBA, which is being replaced with the Alaska Measures of Progress Test, or AMP. Students will take the AMP online. Jensen also notes that all children in the district can now eat breakfast and lunch for free. Studies show that kids who eat breakfast do better in school, and Jensen says he’s hopes the meals will help students excel.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District stretches about 100-thousand square miles and is about the same size as the state of Ohio. The district, made up by 28 schools with more than 4,000 students, has an operating budget of about $80 million.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.