Students in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District have had to endure a combination of divisive and aggressive leftist ideas, Covid closures and controversial masking policies. Many families have had enough, and are pulling their kids from traditional schools in favor of home education.
This has left the district reeling. Over the past two years the district has lost roughly 1,000 students. Many are likely enrolled in other statewide homeschool programs like Raven Homeschool or IDEA, the largest two statewide programs that provide greater freedoms, flexibility and parental control over education.
Others have opted to attend Fairbanks BEST, the district’s publicly-run homeschool program. BEST has grown from 287 students to 743 over the past three years. When students choose to enroll in BEST, the district is still able to capture state and federal funds which are allocated to these students. But with most homeschoolers opting for rival programs outside the district, Fairbanks is upgrading its homeschool offerings with hopes of attracting families back to the district.
Over the past several weeks the Fairbanks School Board has voted to close down three standard elementary schools and cut 70 full-time teachers for next year. In large part, this has to do with rapidly declining enrollment in traditional public schools.
As students leave status-quo government schools, resources are being reallocated to accommodate new realities.
One of the shuttered schools, Nordale Elementary, will be repurposed to better serve the growing number of students moving to homeschooling.
Starting next year, Nordale will become ground zero for alternative options to standard government schools. Support teachers who work with parents in the BEST program will relocate their offices to the old Nordale facility, as will educators who assist with an at-home alternative learning option called E-Learning. Students enrolled in these alternative education programs will have access to the Nordale school gym, playground and classrooms.
Overall, the Nordale building is expected to serve about 1,000 students next year – 800 from BEST and another 200 in the E-Learning program.
Fairbanks School Board Member April Smith said Fairbanks is in the midst of a fundamental shift in how it provides public education. Due to Covid, many parents discovered that they are able and willing to homeschool.
“It showed that many parents can actually rearrange their life and spend more time with their children,” she said. “That’s a good thing for society.”
But not everyone is happy with the district’s new emphasis on homeschooling. A recent op-ed in the Fairbanks Daily News Minor urged the community to oppose the district’s plan. Smith said many long-time educators believe it is unfair to spend more money on homeschooling options while cutting teacher positions and closing traditional schools.
The reality, however, is that public education is in the midst of a profound shift in Fairbanks and across the state. As students leave status quo-government schools, resources are being reallocated to accommodate the new reality.
The challenge in Fairbanks is to convince parents that the retooled Fairbanks BEST program is competitive with other long-standing and reputable state-funded homeschool programs.
“Nothing prepares you for a diverse and changing society like a diverse and changing educational system,” said Fairbanks School Board Member April Smith. “We’ve got to change.”
According to Smith, BEST has long been derided by the Fairbanks homeschool community as “the worst” homeschool option because of limited monetary allotments for students and an overzealous approach to nitpicking curriculum parents choose for their children.
She said the retooled BEST program will be unique among the other homeschool programs in Fairbanks in that it has a quality school building. Smith added that she wants parents to know that the revamped BEST system will not be like the old program.
“We’re not going to be nitpicking your curriculum, which was a big annoying thing they did in the past,” she said. “We’re here to just be a team with the parents and offer them their right, which is to access facilities that are paid for with their local contribution and their state funding.”
Smith said it is important that the Fairbanks homeschool program match other programs like IDEA, Raven Homeschool and others, which have always supported how parents want to educate their children.
Smith said she believes the new focus on homeschooling reflects the district’s strategic plan of “preparing students for a diverse and changing society.”
“Nothing prepares you for a diverse and changing society like a diverse and changing educational system,” she said. “We’ve got to change.”
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For those who claim the district is abandoning teachers and traditional students in favor of homeschooling, Smith said the price of keeping the Nordale building open is just $150,000 a year, the cost of a single teacher.
Overall, she said there is an additional $750,000 going towards homeschooling in the coming school year. This due to increases in the homeschool student allotments to make them more competitive with other homeschool programs available to Fairbanks residents, and to hire additional teachers to support the ballooning ranks of homeschool families.
They have also reworked one district position to create an alternative schools director.
“Right now, there are thousands of students who are outside of our school district, but inside of our boundaries,” Smith said. “And that’s disappointing because it means we have failed to meet the needs of all of those students and their parents.”
For those who remain in the standard brick-and-mortar schools, Smith said they should also be able to enjoy a quality education – and one free from controversial political agendas.
“Kids deserve to be able to go to school and learn how to learn,” she said.