Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Highway residents push school ideas


About 20 upper valley residents and others made an enthusiastic appeal for keeping Mosquito Lake School open Tuesday, saying the Haines Borough School District’s goal of enrolling 10 students there might be met by expanding the K-4 school’s class range, improving “marketing” or transforming it into an alternative school.

Those options may involve busing students from town to the school at 27 Mile. School superintendent Michael Byer said an arrangement for busing may be possible in cooperation with Chatham School District, which runs a bus to Klukwan School from town. Chatham officials were amenable to the idea during an informal conversation in October, Byer said.

About a half-dozen people in attendance informally agreed to serve on a task force to address the school’s future.

School board president Anne Marie Palmieri said after the meeting she didn’t know if changes could be made in time to keep the school open next year.

“We’re at the beginning of this conversation and the beginning of the decision-making process. Having a place-based curriculum would require a significant investment by the district and we’d need help from Mosquito Lake and the community at large. It’s going to have to be a team effort, if this is going to happen.”

The workshop meeting, held at the rural school, attracted parents of students, former students and parents of former students. Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott and assembly member Debra Schnabel also attended. Ideas for the near term included surveying parents boroughwide, holding a “Visit Mosquito Lake School Day,” and exploring options with nearby Klukwan School.

State funding of separate-site schools hinges on enrollment of 10 students. At that number, the district receives $308,000 in state and borough funds. When enrollment drops to nine students, the school brings in only $72,700. The school costs the district about $245,000 per year to operate.

When enrollment dropped from nine to five students last fall, school district officials who say they’re already squeezed for cash put the future of the facility on the school board’s agenda.

Mosquito Lake resident Marianne Rasmussen, whose three children attended the school, said the mixing of different-aged students at the school creates friendships and builds empathy, sensitivity and a family atmosphere. “Specialists have remarked that Mosquito Lake School has done things other schools haven’t accomplished,” she said.

Rasmussen suggested marketing the school’s strengths, like hands-on learning. “I think parents are always going to be looking for unique opportunities. I think there are parents in town who’d get behind it if the district got behind it with a bus,” she said. “If the district got behind it, we could start preliminary planning… (and) ask for a commitment from parents.”

According to longtime residents, enrollment at the school peaked at 28 students during the 1980s. Jessica Rettinger, a homeschool parent who attended Mosquito Lake, said the recent enrollment drop parallels one that’s also occurred at the Haines School, with less dire consequences – so far.

Rettinger asked if the school couldn’t be expanded through eighth grade, but also suggested that an alternative school might be attractive to parents. “Right now, the only alternative to the school system is homeschooling. Based on real-world expectations, that’s not possible for everybody. There’s limited support and assistance. A large percentage of parents are unhappy with the public school system and want another option. This building could be that option. If it was, I think people would be willing to commute to make that happen.”

Mayor Scott suggested foreign language offerings, alternative learning or emphasis on gardening as new directions to try. “These are things we could do now and we’d hardly have to spend any (more) money.”

Trevor Sutcliffe, a Kensington mine employee whose daughter attends Mosquito Lake, said the school was one of the factors that led him to relocate here from Juneau in 2010. He said after the meeting he would be comfortable with a shift toward an alternative program. “I feel children learn best with hands-on activities. Sticking kids behind a desk all day doesn’t seem to work real well,” he said, citing studies showing U.S. students lagging behind peers at foreign schools.

Sutcliffe said he was encouraged by the meeting. “I hope the ideas presented here are brought to fruition. It’s a challenge, but if they play their cards right, it’s also an opportunity. They could come up with a model that would help the district and other districts… Start small, find out what works, and go from there. We could end up as pioneers.”

In comments after the meeting, school board member and upper highway resident Lisa Schwartz, whose daughter attended Mosquito Lake, said features like outdoor education programs and tailored instruction made the school feel like an “alternative school” during her daughter’s time there. “It was an incredibly loving environment. That was the magic of the school and I think that’s the key to a community school like this. It was a very valuable experience for my daughter.”

Superintendent Byer said expanding the school through eighth grade might be possible. “There’s no reason it couldn’t be done, but it would be a wide stretch for one teacher.” New, more rigorous education standards might also complicate such a switch, he said. Byer also reported that Kathy Holmes, the school’s permanent teacher who is on a year’s leave, resigned this week.

Rasmussen encouraged the district to start recruiting for the job, saying changes at the school need to be made in tandem with the incoming teacher. Teacher Kate Baerlocher, who is filling in for Holmes, has indicated she’s leaving at the end of the school year.

Resident Jim Stanford said support for the school suffered after a parent advisory committee there was disbanded and a Community Education program was discontinued. Erica Merklin said residents still use the school for a preschool playgroup, yoga and checking out library books. “It’s a component of our community here, of being here and coming together. There’s more to it than the school.”

Residents who know of students planning to enter Mosquito Lake should contact the district, Byer said.

The school board will revisit the Mosquito Lake issue in a session that will be held immediately prior to its next regular meeting, Feb. 4 at the Haines School library.