Charter school accents Native culture

Organizers are aiming for up to 190 students

Posted: Tuesday, August 16, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Robert Na-o liked what he heard about Fairbanks' new charter school - especially the 10 a.m. starting time that would allow him a few hours more sleep.

The small size and an emphasis on Alaska Native culture also helped the decision for Robert, 14, who is Hawaiian and Athabascan.

"I get to learn more about the (Athabascan) side of my culture," he said. "I think it's cool."

The Effie Kokrine Charter School opens Thursday with an emphasis on Alaska Native and Alaska cultures, governance and environment.

Organizers want an enrollment of at least 150 students and are aiming for 190 for the new middle and high school.

"It is exciting. It has taken a long time but it is going to happen," said Ken Buggey, head of the school's academic policy committee. "It should have happened a long time ago."

The Effie Kokrine Charter School is the idea of Native educators, leaders and parents.

It will be housed at the former Howard Luke Academy and will be open to all public schools students. As a charter school, it is not bound by the curriculum, scheduling and policies of a traditional public school.

Charter schools are governed by an academic policy committee, which has a contract with the district.

Rather than taking an assortment of subject-specific classes, students will enroll in 12 three-week multidisciplinary thematic units, or modules, each year.

Most of the teachers are of Native descent.

"Number one, because we are a Native-focused (school) ... I was looking for teachers who had a lot of experience and understanding of Native ... culture," said head teacher Eleanor Laughlin. Finding them was a challenge, she said.

"There were a lot of good teachers that interviewed but I just didn't feel there was enough experience or understanding of the Native culture," Laughlin said. "I am really happy with this group of teachers."

Laughlin said students will have a homeroom teacher and will have some specific classes such as math and English, but will rotate among teachers every three weeks for the thematic units.

The school hopes to embrace "learning styles." A teacher and student will decide how that student best learns, such as visually, auditorily or kinesthetically. The teacher will tailor instruction and assignments to that student's needs.

The school schedule also will differ. The school day is shorter, about 5 1/2 hours, and eventually the school will switch to a seasonal year-round calendar, with students having lengthy breaks periodically throughout the year.

Laughlin said she and the staff are still working out some of the practical aspects of the program.

"We are not naive enough to think we will start off with everything perfectly," she said.

Superintendent Ann Shortt said she is comfortable with where the school is in its development process, especially after sitting in on staff training.

"I think it is pretty natural that it would not be planned 100 percent," she said. "They have got those (first) modules laid down and know exactly what they are doing."

The school's budget, at $1.5 million annually, is based on an enrollment of 190 students. For charter schools in Alaska, a key number is 150. At that number of students or higher, a charter school is counted as a small, standalone school. Schools with enrollments of 149 or fewer are counted as part of the largest school in the district.

That's important because state per student education funding is higher for small schools than for large schools.

If the Effie Kokrine school enrolls 150 students, as of the four-week count period in October, it would receive about $1.26 million in state funding, said Mike Fisher, chief financial officer for the district. If they have 149 students, that funding drops to $722,000.

"That one student is worth $538,0000," he said. "It's a big deal to make 150 students."

As of late last week, Laughlin said the school was within 40 students of that number, with applications coming in steadily each day. Shortt said it's typical for new or alternative programs to start the year with fewer students than they eventually have by the count period.

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