RUNNING HEAD: Community Spotlight on Pacific Northern Academy
Community Spotlight on Pacific Northern Academy
University of Alaska Anchorage
Professor Rebecca Baker-Knighton
Community Spotlight on Pacific Northern Academy
Like many students at UAA, I consider myself new to Alaska. I drove here from Colorado almost four years ago with my husband and 15-month-old daughter (and three cats!) in a newish Volkswagen Beetle. It took me more than three years just to get my act together to and get back into school here. What with working full-time and raising a child, I wonder at times that I get any studying done at all! One of the most unique things I learned about parenting in Anchorage I heard about initially from my husband. He told me all about the charter school system already in place within the Anchorage School District; at his urging I looked it up on their website (www.asdk12.org) and learned about public schools that offer programs with private school curricula. These schools proffer students something out of the ordinary. Whether you desire a foreign-language immersion program or alternative education method, these schools are available to any family with school-age children in the Anchorage area, provided they are willing to visit the schools on their own and submit their children's names in a desired school's lottery drawing process. In order to keep admissions fair and programs small, admissions are based on random drawings held once each year. My husband and I went through the process and were lucky enough to have our daughter Lilith invited to attend the German immersion program at Rilke Schule (Rilke Schule).
We also checked into the few truly independent secular schools in the area and found one very interesting to us, a school named Pacific Northern Academy (Pacific Northern Academy). The tuition costs can be high but we are in the process of applying for financial aid; we are also facing a wait list to get in as the school maintains a student body size of around 130 students in grades pre-Kindergarten through 8. You might wonder at this point why we would try to get in, seeing as how we've already beaten some pretty big odds by getting into a charter school. Let me tell you, we found plenty of good reasons when we visited the school and spoke to the faculty and staff. While similar, many of them meet or exceed what we believe we can expect for our daughter from Rilke Schule. First of all, let’s be honest: size matters. Class sizes in the public school our daughter would attend (if we hadn’t gone through the lottery) ranges from 21-25 kids per class (ASDOnline). Rilke Schule knocks that down to 20 for Kindergarten through First Grades, but they also have planned for four classes each of Kindergarten and First Graders this year; all immersion programs have trouble, it seems, retaining students. It’s nearly impossible, they claim, to admit students after First Grade, and class size attrition due to parents moving out of the area or state for various reasons causes them to lose more students in higher grades that they can scarcely replace (Beth Schlabaugh, October 2010). Pacific Northern takes it even lower with classes topping out at 18 and averaging around 14 students. Many of the classes also have full-time teacher’s aides, and the overall staff-to-student ratio is an impressive 1:9. Class size is an important indicator of how much time you can expect your child’s teacher to devote time to your child as an individual. From the PNA website, “low teacher to student ratios… enable students to have meaningful and personalized interactions with their teachers… giving teachers the opportunity to challenge students according to their individual ability.” Further, “students also have the opportunity to work and learn with students of different ages in activities designed to encourage mentoring and cross-age learning Pacific Northern Academy.” We heard of this approach to inter-age activities from Rilke-Schule’s staff also; I cannot say whether or not these kinds of opportunities exist in typical Anchorage elementary schools.
Another very important consideration for me in choosing both Rilke Schule and Pacific Northern Academy over other options was the fact that both require students to wear school uniforms to some degree. I’ll understand if readers take personal exception to this component of our decision, especially if your children are all boys, but I do NOT want my daughter forced to choose her friends based on appearances, even at such a young age. I’d rather have her focused on school and developing friendships with classmates based on personality rather than fashion choices or social standing. I know I can’t protect her from that kind of social pressure forever, but I’d like to delay it as long as possible. I hope she’ll develop more solid foundations from which to base her personal interactions, rather than allow media and marketing trends to define them for her in the name of cultural hegemony.
Like the uniforms, these two schools have much in common that my husband and I found appealing. The biggest difference between the two programs then becomes one of funding. For example, both have outstanding art teachers as part of their motivated, engaged staffs. Both offer annual opportunities to travel with school groups to foreign lands. However, as a public school funded by a state-funded school district, Rilke Schule has to rely on its own fundraising efforts to pay for anything above and beyond that provided by the district (Beth Schlabaugh). This often leaves the parents holding the bag, as it were. (Parental volunteerism is also expected at Rilke Schule as a monthly component of the parents’ contribution to involvement in the program.) Conversely, with PNA as a completely independent, privately-funded school, they have the ability to decide how those funds are used. Their art teacher is full-time, 5 days a week versus Rilke Schule’s 2-day-a-week program. PNA stages a full musical production every year, with interested students from all upper grades encouraged to participate (Susan Bergt, May 2011). The travel opportunities with the immersion school are pretty much centered on traveling to Germany each year, while PNA had different travel experiences for students of different ages. Previous destinations have included Puget Sound and Washington, D.C. (for sixth- and seventh-graders, respectively) with eighth-grade trips in recent years to Great Britain and Costa Rica.
Academically, Pacific Northern Academy really appealed to us as parents. We both have degrees and aptitudes in the sciences, and we’re both strong believers in the value of a high-quality, academically rigorous education. We both feel that our child has been blessed with high intelligence (no doubt exceeding our own in short order), and we hope for great things from her. During our tour and subsequent visits to PNA, we saw writing samples from fifth graders whose English test scores surpassed college entry requirements, and these were typical examples, not those of only the most gifted students (Susan Bergt). They also focus on the whole child in their educational approach designed to foster emotional and social advancement in addition to their academic growth. Community service activities are encouraged, with at least one school wide community give-back event executed each year (Pacific Northern Academy).
As doting parents, we may be guilty of overindulging our daughter on a fairly regular basis. I feel very lucky to be living in an area with such a wide array of free educational alternatives available to my child, and I will not regret for one moment sending her off to Rilke Schule in August. However, if I am able or given the chance to, I will not hesitate to pull her out of that program in favor of Pacific Northern Academy’s. I believe their program is superior to any other we have seen in this area and may in fact be further proof of the adage that “you get what you pay for”. If you have (or plan on someday having) school-age children and have not yet done so, I would encourage you to investigate any of these educational opportunities that interest you. You can scarcely give your child a better head start in an increasingly complex world than to invest in their future by taking an active interest in their education from an early age.
1.) Pacific Northern Academy, retrieved from http://www.pacificnorthern.org/
2.) ASD Online, retrieved from http://www.asdk12.org/
3.) Rilke Schule German School of Arts & Sciences, retrieved from http://www.rilkeschule.org/
4.) Beth Schlabaugh, Rilke Schule Academic Policy Committee Member, mailto:Beth.Schlabaugh@rilkeschule.org, numerous conversations between October 2010 and April 2011.
5.) Susan Bergt, Director of Admissions and Marketing - email@example.com, interviewed May 2011.
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