By Naomi Klouda
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a new series offered by the Homer Tribune on school issues. This week, we look at challenges faced by Old Believer Russian schools.
At the very end of a town famous for its ending roads, rests Kachemak Selo School in the Russian Old Believer Village.
To get there means traveling 25 miles to the terminus of East End, then riding a 4-wheeler another 10 minutes or walking the usually icy switchback, which takes half an hour. At the highest tides of the year, the trail is submerged in bay waters.
“The Switchback is kind of a team builder – we depend on one another to get back and forth together,” said Principal Andy Rothenberger. “This allows the staff to collaborate, to talk about their lives and plans. If every school had a switchback, it would be a positive thing.”
Four Russian Old Believer schools in the Kenai Peninsula School District are all located outside Homer: Nikolaevsk, Razdolna, Voznesenka and Selo. Nikolaevsk was the first Russian Old Believer School coming into the Kenai Peninsula School District in1970-71. According to district records, Razdolna followed 1984-85; Voznesenka 1988-89 and Kachemak-Selo 1991-92.
Currently, the district leases buildings at Kachemak Selo, Razdolna and Voznesenka but owns the Nikolaevsk school.
At Kachemak Selo, the actual school building is basic, lacking amenities larger schools can take for granted. But what the structures lack is more than made up for in scoring a 98 percent in language arts and a 94 percent math proficiency. The school also has a 100 percent graduation rate, all proven support from a village that is at once keeping its abiding culture and stepping into a new age.
The village’s priorities for keeping the culture intact through its retention of the Russian language is carried over into the curriculum. A graduate of the school, a certified Russian teacher, holds classes for grades 4-12.
“We feel when they graduate from high school, they will have a strong foundation in the Russian language and the English language. They were bilingual when they came into the school, and they will be bilingual when they come out,” Rothenberger said.
“Schools tend to have their own identities. We don’t have a lot of sports, though students are involved in hockey, wrestling, soccer. We have no lunch program. (Students eat with their families at home.) No library. No P.E. No separate music or fine arts class. But what we do have is a top-notch Russian program. Our parents are really proud of that.”
The Russian program opens possibilities for careers, coupled with a curriculum in 21st century technology skills.
“We have three Smartboards and a computer cart – each student has a laptop in the high school. All of the parents approved these laptops for the students,” the principal said. “Students are acutely aware of the importance technology will play in their lives.”
At nearby Voznesenka School, the collection of four portables and one main building make for the basic structures to serve 100 students. Only two sets of bathrooms on the campus mean students leave their portables in whatever weather to enter another building. But buildings aren’t the heart of the school, said Principal Mike Wojciak.
“There are lots of little things about a community. For a facility that is substandard in the eyes of educational institutions, what we are able to do, as well as we do, shows that these students are able academically to pull their own weight,” Wojciak said. This is the school that came under focus a few years ago when its wrestling team was using cement floored sheds for practice. Yet, the wrestlers were making notable victories among their tournament feats. This school also makes Annual Yearly Progress.
Wojciak, who is new this year to the school and comes from a Yupik school district up north, said he’s impressed. “We don’t have maybe the luxuries that other schools have and yet still, there’s a certain dedication to make it happen. It shows a community effort to make AYP.”
With space at a premium, distance education courses are looked at as one way to help supplement the curriculum. Classes like drafting algebra and chemistry are among those offered.
“We are doing well in the technology department. The kids in school now have all grown up with technology – and they have Russian language classes. They are encouraged to try to infuse the language with other subjects,” said Wojciak. The Russian taught is the archaic dialect of Old Believer.
“What’s important to them is to continue their Russian language and culture. They feel they have a right to good basics. They’re satisfied as long as instructional programs are delivered in high quality.”
Since the buildings are in private ownership, public money can’t be used by KPBSD to make repairs, said Dave Spence, director of planning and operations. But portables are owned and maintained by the district.
Razdolna is the third village at the terminus of yet another road off East End, situated on a hill above the village of Selo. It is separated by a deep canyon from the village of Voznesenka, and has the oldest of the three schools.
Razdolna School is one of the few in the Kenai Peninsula School District that is growing. Next year, an expected 13 new kindergartners will push the enrollment to 80 students, in a building whose capacity is 50. According to enrollment projections, the school is expected to continue to swell through the year 2017 to double its current capacity.
Razdolna was started as a borough school in 1980 by the Basargin brothers and sisters. It was built so their children would not have to leave the village to attend school.
“The land and building for the elementary students is owned by the brothers and sisters, and then leased to the school district,” Principal Timothy Whip explained. “Two years ago a portable was brought in to alleviate overcrowding. The portable is situated across the street from the elementary and houses the middle and high school students.”
Growing enrollment puts the elementary school over the fire marshal limit of 50 people in the building. The district is working with the owners to add space, and if this doesn’t work out they will bring in another portable, Whip said.
Surrounded by wilderness, kids here aren’t so tied into the Internet or hand-held devices, so they play outside more than perhaps their counterparts in other schools, Whip said.
“Students here have great imaginations. I’m proud of that, because they aren’t tied into Internet and TV as much. They are out playing and thinking all the time,” Whip said. He’s impressed by unusual artistic talents, he said.
Though the majority in the village speak an older Russian dialect, the Russian language course, taught by a Ukrainian tutor, is of the more broadly used modern Russian.
“Our parents want the kids to learn the modern Russian, but they want to preserve what they already have. Parents and students talk about this – in terms of culture and religion. They are involved in discussions about how they want to steer their education.”
There are SmartBoards in every classroom and students have access to laptops.
Future from the past
There is some trepidation about technology that parents experience in overseeing their children’s education, said Anna Basargin of Kachemak Selo.
“Teachers are doing great – they support us in our religious holidays and in our language,” said Basargin, a mother involved in the school for the past decade. “Of course, some families are not for the technology. I support that too, that some parents don’t want their children too much into technology.”
Most parents agree, in Basargin’s experience, that technological devices and learning relevant applications will be needed.
“They need a little knowledge, we know, but we need to support our religion, too. Do we have to have all of this technology, and can’t we still be old fashioned too?”
It’s a balancing act that will involve parents discussions with the village schools at each step of the way, she said.
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