Chatham district looks to boost enrollment at Klukwan school


July 7, 2022

Klukwan School has a new superintendent and a new principal, both committed to keeping it open and boosting enrollment.

The Chatham School District – whose sites include schools in Klukwan, Angoon and Gustavus, and an independent learning center in Tenakee Springs -- named a new superintendent, Ralph Watkins, in April after its previous superintendent died suddenly in December.

Watkins previously held administrative roles with the North Slope, Bering Strait, Valdez and Hoonah school districts.

Justina Starzynski Hotch, a Klukwan resident and the school’s STEPS student support program coordinator, said she thinks Watkins is “coming to the position with a really different approach” from previous superintendents, who often had fraught relationships with the village.

The school’s future became precarious after its enrollment dropped below 10 students last October, triggering a reduction in state funding to the Chatham district. Until the school’s enrollment returns to 10 students, state funding will be reduced and the district will have to decide how to pay for the school’s operation. However, the district is “really committed to maintaining a site in Klukwan,” Watkins said.

“Klukwan is a unique community with a rich culture and heritage, and we know having a school there is very important to the community,” he said.

Hotch also praised the new principal, Emma Demmert, who will oversee the Klukwan and Angoon schools but will be based in Angoon. Hotch said that both Demmert and Watkins seem “really positive, really in support of what we need to do to be able to increase our enrollment.”

Demmert said she wants to ensure that the Klukwan school doesn’t feel abandoned by the district. “We want to make sure they’re included in everything that we do.” She said the district also intends to support the local advisory school board in its efforts to recruit more students to the school this fall.

Specific strategies for attracting more students to the Klukwan school include holding an open house, distributing brochures and adding a preschool, according to Michelle Shatswell, the district superintendent’s administrative assistant. Shatswell feels especially optimistic about the prospect of a preschool because a staff member based in Klukwan reported a significant population of younger children in the village. Another Chatham school also successfully opened a preschool, Shatswell said.

Lon Garrison, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said schools are generally given a grace period of about a year to reach the 10-student minimum before any closure process begins.

However, both Watkins and Heidi Teshner, deputy commissioner at the Department of Education and Early Development, stressed that districts can choose to keep schools open even with low enrollment.

“The Alaska Department of Education does not close schools,” Teshner said. “That’s up to districts to decide.” But the state’s funding formula does allocate less money to a district if enrollment at one of its sites drops below 10 students.

The state formula gave $116,000 to the Chatham district for the Klukwan students in 2021-22, Teshner said. The school’s average daily membership was 6.85 students; if it had been 10 or greater, these students would have generated $450,000 for the district, based on a formula that takes into account overhead costs for operating a school.

In 2022, after the drop in Klukwan enrollment, the district received $3.09 million. The district determines how to divide that money among its sites. “Whatever funds Chatham has, Klukwan has. It’s not based on a set number of students,” Watkins said.

The other schools in the Chatham district are not threatened by low enrollment, Shatswell said. She explained that because they are in more remote areas and not on the road system, these sites don’t have to compete with other local schools for students.

Shatswell hopes prospective families will see that Klukwan School offers “rich cultural classes and teachings that students could not get at another school.”

Last year, Klukwan School struggled to find a teacher; two had quit by November. This year the district has reinstated “head teacher” funding – an additional stipend to compensate for the administrative duties that the teacher must assume given the lack of an on-site principal. Watkins said the district has recently succeeded in hiring a head teacher for the school, and he expects the contract to be approved by the board in the coming days.

Watkins will make his first visit to Klukwan on July 28.

“Relationships (with the district) are moving in a positive direction,” Hotch said. “Here locally, people are feeling hopeful.”


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