What’s school like in Tenakee Springs without a school?

Chris Mannino has a 6-year-old daughter named Ila who she home-schools and takes to the independent learning center in Tenakee Springs on the three days it’s open each week.

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Manino said she only started thinking about home schooling her daughter after the town’s school closed back in 2013.

“Prior to that time, no absolutely not, home schooling was barely a word I knew,” Mannino said.”It was nothing that we were pursuing or interested in.”

The school reopened, but ever since, Mannino has been doing research to help figure out how she would home-school her daughter. She said that’s why this year when the school shut down, she was ready.

“So, I wish our school was open,” Mannino said. “I wish we had enough students to have a regular school. That would be my first choice. But since we don’t, I feel like I’ve had time to prepare to do this.”

The Tenakee Springs School closed this summer after its enrollment fell to single digits. But then, the school building reopened as an independent learning center that gives home-schooled kids a place to socialize and take part in group activities.

Mannino enjoys being so close to her daughter but said sometimes it’s kind of tough.

“Home-schooling a 6-year-old, there is no break,” she said.

The entrance to the Tenakee Springs School building. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO - Juneau)
The entrance to the Tenakee Springs School building. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO – Juneau)

Tenakee Springs is a small Southeast Alaska town on Chichagof Island, about 46 miles southwest of Juneau. In 2015, the state reported it had about 140 residents. It also has a small student body that fluctuates from year to year. Frances Ziel said some families were already choosing to home-school before the closure. After the school shut down, she said the district wanted to support them.

Ziel is a regional school board member for the Chatham School District. She said last school year, student enrollment in Tenakee Springs dropped from 11 to five students when one family moved away. State education funding drops sharply when enrollment falls below 10 students.

“What we decided to do was turn the brick-and-mortar building into an independent learning center,” Ziel said.

Frances Ziel, right, during an advisory school board meeting. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO - Juneau)
Frances Ziel, right, during an advisory school board meeting. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO – Juneau)

The learning center gives the community a chance to use at least some of the school’s resources.

Ziel guessed there are 12 school-aged kids in town and seven of them enrolled in distance education through the Chatham School District. The district is working with an accredited distance learning school that sends parents materials to help them home-school their children. What parents can’t provide at home, their children look for at the learning center.

“All children that are enrolled in Chatham School District can come here three days a week,” Ziel said. “They have two tutors here that are available if they are so needed or wanted by the students or parents.”

Kids are also given access to the school’s library, gym and classrooms; and they can come to special events like an upcoming talk on octopuses.

Mannino said she would get a lot more downtime during the day if her daughter were going to traditional school. Without the learning center, she’d almost get none.

“And that’s one thing that’s been really nice about the independent learning center. Ila can work with Megan and another couple of younger children for an hour or two, three days a week,” Mannino said.

Megan Bush is the independent learning center facilitator. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO - Juneau)
Megan Bush is the independent learning center facilitator. (Photo by Quinton Chandler, KTOO – Juneau)

Megan Bush is the independent learning center’s facilitator.

“Pretty much anything and everything that the ILC needs, that’s me,” she said.

One of her duties is to supervise a 4-year-old, and two 6-year-olds including Ila, Mannino’s daughter, during the afternoon.

“So I consider my job to be providing opportunities that they’re not getting in their home school education. A big part of that is, especially for the younger ones, is social time,” Bush said.

The learning center is open three days a week from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and it serves kids of all ages. Bush said the building could easily accommodate 20 to 25 kids if the town had that many. Instead, she usually sees less than 10.

“From 9 to 11, I’m tutoring the middle and high school students,” Bush said. “I have one middle schooler and four high schoolers that come up here regularly and two more that come up here more occasionally.”

Chris Mannino isn’t sure what her family would’ve done if they had to home-school without the learning center. She said moving would’ve been one option on the table.