- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

HOMER, Alaska (AP) - On the Kenai Peninsula, schools with students in poverty are more of a norm than an anomaly. The road to achieving educational goals is often more difficult at these schools than for schools with affluent populations. Students have different concerns, heavier than passing a test or finishing class reading, which affect their ability to concentrate in class.

However, two schools within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have been awarded as National Title I Distinguished Schools, recognizing their ability to empower all their students to succeed. Chapman School, a K-8 school in Anchor Point, received the award for excellence in student performance for two years or more, while the K-12 Nikolaevsk School in Nikolaevsk is being honored for closing the gap between student groups.

Each year, school districts nominate one school for each of the two categories and two schools per state are awarded as distinguished schools. For Alaska - a large state despite its small population - to have its distinguished schools located within 10 miles of each other and within the same district is remarkable.

Title I is a federal program that provides funding for schools with poverty levels more than 40 percent, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District website. Title I provides for programs like pre-kindergarten and reading intervention for struggling elementary school students. Both Chapman and Nikolaevsk have teachers who provide specialized reading intervention to their students.

The numbers for students in poverty are a result of those students whose families fill out the forms and qualify for free or reduced school lunches, so the numbers can fluctuate based on whether parents in need decide to apply, said Chapman School Principal Conrad Woodhead. Currently, 45 percent of Chapman students live in poverty, while 75 to 80 percent of Nikolaevsk School students are in poverty.

Nikolaevsk School’s faculty focuses on Maslow’s pyramid of needs - the idea that until basic needs for survival are met, a person cannot achieve on higher planes - when considering the challenges a student faces in the classroom.

“If you’re coming to school and you’re hungry or your parents are up all night arguing or your power got turned off, you might not be thinking about what math lesson you’re doing today. It might be, ‘Do I have a warm place to sleep tonight, do I have a meal when I get home, did I eat this morning?’ Those sorts of things are going to be in the forefront,” said Nikolaevsk School Principal Mike Sellers.

Chapman focuses on the time the kids are in school as a time to provide consistency in their lives, Woodhead said.

“We have kids with some challenges, especially when they leave our building, and I don’t have any control over that. My teachers don’t have any control over that, but what we can control is the 8:40 to 3:10 that we have them,” Woodhead said “If we can be consistent in our delivery, if we can be consistent in sharing our successes and getting accurate information to our parents, that’s going to benefit our kids.”

Although each student’s unique situations are taken into consideration, Nikolaevsk School does not focus on a student’s group or classification as the main part of a student’s identity, Sellers said.

“We don’t pigeonhole students where they’re at. We just look at them as an individual,” Sellers said. “Everybody’s got strengths and weaknesses, and then how do we use our strengths to build on our weaknesses and help that child - and also by helping them to take more control over their own learning and their own destiny.”

Nikolaevsk gives its students autonomy by having them look over their own educational data and work with teachers to come up with their own goals for the year. Students then present their goals and progress to their parents at the parent conferences, as opposed to just the parent and teacher discussing the student. Students should be empowered to take charge of their own education, Sellers said, and as a result, they are more engaged and interested.

“We can lead students to jump through the hoops and have all those right behaviors of filling out worksheets and turning them in, but if their mind is not engaged in it because it’s not important to them - they’re doing it because you asked for it rather than ‘it means something to me’ - there’s not as much learning going on. . The more we can put that in their control, the deeper the learning is for them,” Sellers said.

Chapman School has a similar philosophy of approaching students as individuals rather than how the student is identified by state testing demographics. Their small student population of 112 allows teachers to personalize learning.

“We teach every kid with equal amount of vigor that comes through our door. It doesn’t matter if they’re a poverty kid, or an (English language learner) kid, or an Alaskan Native kid, it doesn’t matter if they’re a special education kid, we’re going to take every kid and do what we do. And that is find out what level they’re at, teach to that level, provide interventions if need be, provide enrichments when need be, and make sure that kid gets what they need,” said Woodhead.

Chapman and Nikolaevsk’s approach to education is similar in many ways. The focus is on empowering students to do anything they might choose, where they may choose to do it.

“Whether they go to Homer High, whether they move, whether they have aspirations of staying here their whole life, if they want to live in San Diego, I want them to be prepared wherever they go,” Woodhead said.

Nikolaevsk School’s mission is to be a school with a global perspective, Sellers said. Banners for colleges like Georgetown University, or even the U.S. Air Force, hang in the halls as encouragement for students to achieve their goals.

“Teachers, parents and students all had a role in developing what they saw as the goal for our school . In the last two years we’ve had two graduates from Georgetown. Right now we have a student who wants to go to Stanford, and I think she’ll probably go,” Sellers said. “Whatever you want to do, they’re doing it from here.”

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Information from: The Homer (Alaska) News, https://www.homernews.com

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