Officials with the Alaska Virtual Academy are considering relocating out of the Wrangell School District.
The initial contract with the virtual school began in 2010 because the district wanted to ensure compliance with special education requirements. Also, at the time, school officials considered the additional teachers’ salaries as an economic benefit to the town. John Gutman serves as head of school for the academy.
He said there were a total of four employees, including him, who first came to Wrangell. But the three teachers have since moved to Barrow, Eagle River and Wasilla to be closer to the students the school serves.
“Most of our students are up north, so we plan on spending the bulk of our time, and when I say we, I mean me and our teachers, with our students up north. So it’s just me right now. Now my company has asking if it might make more sense to have an office elsewhere,” he said.
He said nothing is definite at this time, and the academy plans to honors its contract with the district. That ends June 2014. District and academy officials said they plan to continue discussing possible options for the partnership before making any final decisions. Gutman said the school currently has 85 students statewide in K-8. Roughly half of those students are low-income and he said a few of them are homeless. Last year, the virtual academy had 75 students. That population brought in another $10,350 in funding to the Wrangell School District.
Gutman said only three of last year’s students were from Wrangell and those three have returned to the district this year.
“Original thought, at least for Wrangell, is that this could be an alternative program for parents here in Wrangell that, for whatever reason, the brick-and-mortar school wasn’t working for them. And in the two years I’ve been here, there have been a couple families that have taken advantage of it. I’ve forgone marketing here in Wrangell at the request of the superintendent and principals just because when a student leaves, say Stikine Middle School, and comes to our program, there’s a perceived loss of revenue. A loss of control of that revenue,” he said.
He said the money still technically comes to the district, but is controlled by the academy. Gutman also said the way the academy’s curriculum is structured may not be a parent’s first choice. The program comes with set courses, while other virtual schools allow parents to pick and choose courses for their students.
Board member Krissy Smith suggested tapping into the home school market, but Gutman said he has offered the program to those parents and they often prefer to select their own curriculum.
Superintendent Rich Rhodes pointed out another issue may be that the virtual school market in the state is over-saturated and the need might not be there in Southeast like it is in more populated parts of Alaska.
“When you have a high level correspondence program who has higher expectations and you’re competing with some of those, obtaining that marketplace in an area where 55 percent of the student population is in the Anchorage-MatSu makes more sense than Southeast Alaska where 75,000 people in Southeast Alaska, 30,000 in Juneau, 13,000 in Ketchikan, and the rest are spread across 1,000 miles. Some of it is just demographics, too,” Rhodes said.
Gutman agreed and said that is why his supervisors are considering moving their operation up north.