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Correspondence school's planned closing concerns School Board

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

The proposed closing of the state-run correspondence school could help the Juneau School District's budget but would hurt some local students who need personalized attention or help to graduate, according to administrators and School Board members.

The School Board said Tuesday it will send a letter to legislators expressing concern about the proposed closing of Alyeska Central School.

Alyeska enrolls about 640 full-time students and 440 tuition-paying students who take selected courses. Its summer school enrolled 3,450 students last year.

The Alyeska closure is among a number of Murkowski administration measures to reduce the state education budget. Closing Alyeska would save the state $1.2 million, the cost of its summer school, state officials have said.

The state wouldn't necessarily save money by closing the regular program because the state still would fund the education of those students if they enrolled in an Alaska school district or a district-based home-school program.

Eighty Juneau children attend Alyeska full time, said Juneau schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan. If Alyeska closed, some of those students might enroll in the Juneau School District, either in its regular schools or in its two home-school programs, thus increasing the district's state funding.

At a meeting last week, School Board member Paul Gulyas discounted the idea that many Alyeska students would transfer into regular schools. The students have chosen an alternative program and will seek another such program if Alyeska closes, he said.

Cowan also pointed out some local downsides to Alyeska's closure.

Last summer Juneau School District students took 275 courses in the Alyeska summer school, which is funded by the state. The school district's summer school focuses on remedial courses, and it would be hard for it to match the diversity of Alyeska's courses, administrators said. The Juneau summer school charges a fee but offers some scholarships.

A lot of Juneau students who take summer courses at Alyeska want to work ahead, not take remedial courses, said Carol Sewill, who runs the Juneau School District's correspondence program.

If Alyeska closed, those students would have to pay for correspondence courses from outside of Alaska if they still wanted them. No other Alaska distance-education programs sell such courses, Sewill said.

"We would have a very hard time duplicating the 275 courses," said School Board member Mary Becker. "This would be a very great loss to our students."

The Alyeska summer courses are valuable to high school seniors who are short a few credits to graduate, Sewill said. Without a substitute program, they would have to re-enroll in high school in the fall, putting off college.

Also, 83 Juneau children, some enrolled in the school district, are paying tuition to take selected courses at Alyeska during the regular school year. Some of those are middle school students taking advanced courses such as algebra and geometry, Cowan said.

Sewill said Alyeska's tuition-paying students can buy courses from out of state for a comparable fee, but Juneau children won't have the close access to Alyeska's certified teachers, who work here. Nor will the outside courses be geared to Alaska, she said.

Laurie Clough of Juneau enrolls two sons, 13 and 15, in the public schools part time, and they also take some courses for a fee at Alyeska. Clough, a former public school teacher, said Juneau's schools are good but in some ways were a bad fit for her sons.

"I wanted them to excel in school, and I could see they weren't doing it," she said.

The Murkowski administration has argued that Alyeska's services are duplicated elsewhere. But Clough said the statewide distance-education programs run by Alaska school districts won't accept part-time students. And she's concerned Outside programs won't provide a quick turnaround in reviewing lessons.

Also of concern locally is the loss of jobs. Alyeska employs 20 teachers and 18 support staff, all in Juneau, the school has said. Another 10 positions, all but one in Juneau, are unfilled.

Debbie Chalmers, president of the Alyeska teachers union, said her family had to leave Juneau and eventually Alaska when low oil prices in 1986 triggered layoffs of untenured teachers. She returned in 1990.

"I just never thought I'd see another '1986' here with the state being hit so hard," Chalmers said. "I'm having trouble understanding the necessity for cutting state government to the level they are."

The Juneau market for home sales is "soft," she said. "You put 10 or 15 more homes on the market - I think that's going to have an appreciable impact."

Because a statewide correspondence school is mandated by Alaska law, it will take another law to undo the requirement.

The House Health Education and Social Services Committee was split in its review of House Bill 174 to close Alyeska. The bill has been scheduled for a hearing, among other bills, in the State Affairs Committee, chaired by Juneau Republican Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

A similar measure, Senate Bill 107, was passed out of the Senate Health Education and Social Services Committee on Thursday and will go to that body's Finance Committee.

Closing Alyeska is a tough policy call, Rep. John Coghill, a North Pole Republican who supports the closure, said at a House Health Education and Social Services Committee hearing late last month.

The state is working to get school districts connected to their students, and the districts have been stepping up with their own home-school programs, he said.

"The policy call we are asking here is do we give the school districts now the responsibility for providing correspondence school," he told the committee.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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