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Published in Print: December 10, 2003, as Alaska Correspondence School Avoids Threatened Shutdown

Alaska Correspondence School Avoids Threatened Shutdown

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For more than 60 years, Alyeska Central School has delivered education by mail, phone, and the Internet throughout Alaska to families 40 miles from the nearest road as well as to those who were unhappy with the school up the street.

Now, state officials have reached an agreement they say will ensure that Alyeska Central, Alaska's only fully certified correspondence school, survives in the face of recent proposals to shut it down.

A state-appointed panel decided late last month to have the correspondence program, which was founded in 1939 and operates out of an office in Juneau, become part of the Yukon- Koyukuk district, a 1,450-student system stretching across central Alaska and headquartered in Fairbanks.

"A lot of the politicians were surprised by the outpouring of support when they tried to close it," said Rick Currier, Alyeska Central's counselor. "Our hope is that our mission won't change."

Yukon- Koyukuk officials predict the correspondence school, which will continue with the same name, will grow stronger. They plan to have Alyeska Central designated a charter school, which they hope will give it autonomy while it operates under district oversight. In return, Yukon-Koyukuk officials want Alyeska Central to help them meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Like many school systems in Alaska, Yukon-Koyukuk has schools scattered over hundreds of miles of forbidding frontier, navigable only by plane. Some of its schools have only one teacher covering all academic subjects for 15 or 20 students. That arrangement will make it difficult for Yukon-Koyukuk—and other districts with remote schools—to meet the No Child Left Behind law's mandate to have a highly qualified teacher in every core academic subject by the 2005-06 academic year, many Alaskans say.

Some state officials have touted distance education as a solution. Students in remote areas could be given access to highly qualified teachers via the Internet and teleconferencing, they say. Currently, Alyeska Central offers free correspondence courses to K-12 students anywhere in Alaska. Courses for adults outside of the K-12 program are offered at a cost. Students seeking a high school diploma through the correspondence program must take state exams.

In addition to serving students from remote areas, Alyeska Central draws enrollees from urban centers such as Anchorage. Some seek out the correspondence program because they had disciplinary problems at their local schools, or special needs that couldn't be met. Others were simply unhappy with the performance of their schools.

Over the past few years, about a dozen other district-run correspondence programs have emerged across Alaska, though state officials say the programs are still in the process of gaining full accreditation.

Earlier this year, Gov. Frank Murkowski and state lawmakers cited the availability of those programs in approving legislation that would shut down Alyeska Central, saying it would save Alaska $1.2 million annually in state per-pupil spending.

'No Other Choice'

Alaska legislators, however, gave Alyeska Central a year to stay open, during which time it could seek a school district to take it over. In November, the state panel chose Yukon-Koyukuk over two other districts vying for the program. Yukon-Koyukuk officials agreed to allow Alyeska Central to continue operating out of its offices in Juneau, and retain its 26 teachers and staff. The district takes over in July of 2004.

While it has made increasing use of technology such as the Internet, about 90 percent of Alyeska Central's work with students is still done through the mail, said Dick Luther, the acting director of the program. The Yukon-Koyukuk district, however, operates its own correspondence program. With several locations, the program relies on computer technology, and Alyeska Central officials hope to infuse the technology into their program.

The union satisfied Paula A. Williams, the parent of a senior and two sophomores at Alyeska Central. She had fought the proposed closure.

The Williams family lives in a cabin in the Matnuska-Susitna Borough, on a lake roughly 40 miles northwest of Anchorage. The family has books and other materials, assigned by Alyeska Central, flown in at the beginning of each school year. Other correspondence schools required her sons to use the Internet, which the family does not have access to year-round, she says. "One of the arguments used by people who wanted to shut the program down was, 'Well, you have other choices,'" Ms. Williams said. "For us, there really was no other choice."

Vol. 23, Issue 15, Page 10

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