Correspondence school lays off nine of its Juneau staff

School now has fewer than half the students it expected to have

Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2004

Alyeska Central School, the correspondence school that was transferred from the state to a school district in July, laid off its entire support staff Friday.

Nine employees, all in Juneau, lost their jobs.

The school has less than half the students - 320 - that it expected to have, said Christopher Simon, superintendent of the Yukon Koyukuk School District, based in Fairbanks.

The school did not lay off any of its 13 teachers, who also work in Juneau, and it will continue to operate, Simon said. An acting director will be replaced by a teacher who also will serve as principal.

Alyeska plans to attract more students by developing courses for high school students at risk of dropping out and courses for village schools, and by getting the word out to parents that the school exists, staff said.

"For sure, we have big dreams for Alyeska Central School still," Simon said. "We are hoping to survive through this year and take another swipe at it next fall."

The Murkowski administration said in 2003 that it was going to close the school, which served about 640 home-schooled students from kindergarten through grade 12. Several hundred other students paid for individual courses.

The state eventually gave the school a year to find an Alaska school district that would take it over. Several applied, including Juneau's, and the state Department of Education chose Yukon Koyukuk, which runs small village schools in the Interior and another statewide correspondence program.

But the transition from state control to Yukon Koyukuk was not smooth, said Gordon Kostenko, the Alyeska accounting technician and one of the people laid off.

When the state was trying to end Alyeska, it told parents to look for other options. Some parents didn't realize later that the school had been saved.

"A lot of parents thought Alyeska Central School was shut down," Simon said.

Meanwhile, a key staffer at the Yukon Koyukuk central office in Fairbanks was absent because of a family emergency and could not monitor enrollments closely, staff said.

Furthermore, Alyeska discovered after the state's official enrollment count date in October, which determines funding, that some of its students were enrolled in brick-and-mortar school districts and were counted as part of those districts, Simon said.

The state funds correspondence students at 80 percent of the rate of students in regular schools.

Yukon Koyukuk didn't have a choice in how to cut expenses, Kostenko said. The teachers' contract guarantees them employment through the school year. Support staff had no contract.

Laying off people just before Christmas was "certainly a tough thing to do," Simon said.

The workers received two weeks' severance pay.

"We tried to do it as gentle as possible. But there is no gentle way to do it," he said.

Their jobs included clerical work, computer support, warehouse work, and printing. The school prepares, prints and mails out its curriculum to students, who periodically check in by phone and mail with the school's teachers.

The teachers will be expected to pick up the load. Teachers are figuring out how to divide the duties. But it will be difficult and time-consuming to perform them without having support staffers to explain their jobs, said Patrick Herding, who teaches math and science at Alyeska.

"The people who do the administrative work are there for a reason," Kostenko said, "and it's basically to allow the teachers to teach and keep the other stuff from going haywire."

Meanwhile, teachers are using a two-year federal grant to create high school courses for at-risk students.

"We'll still have our current ... courses that are at grade level and more academically challenging, and we'll have this new group of courses that are written at a little lower reading level," Herding said.

Alyeska teachers also see an opportunity to increase the school's funds by providing specialized courses to small village schools that don't have teachers who meet federal standards for qualifications.

Parents and staff expressed confidence in the Yukon Koyukuk School District. Kostenko said its officials want the school to succeed.

Pam Sorensen, whose family lives at a wilderness lodge at Alexander Creek near Mount Susitna northwest of Anchorage, has enrolled her three children at Alyeska over the years. A daughter is a fifth-grader in the program.

"As far as I'm concerned, with the Alyeska correspondence course it's just going to be business as usual because everyone is so efficient there," she said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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