Wrangell High School. (Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell schools have been back in session for almost a month. KSTK sat down with Wrangell Public Schools’ Superintendent Bill Burr earlier this month to talk about the ongoing school year. 

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“Giving our students more control of their own education is really important,” says Wrangell Superintendent of Schools Bill Burr. This year, he explains that the public school district is focused on gathering: gathering data, assessments and feedback. “We’re looking at classroom assessments, we’re looking at student assessments, grade breakouts to see if there’s an anomaly of too high, too low or a broad spectrum. And looking at feedback from the students themselves,” he says. 

There will even be assessments of the assessments at the district’s three schools: “The state has a certified facilitator program that all districts are required to participate in this year. It’s concentrated on how assessment affects education. How are we working in our districts and in our schools on assessment itself?”

This year’s data feedback includes an audit of the school’s ESEA Title Programs, Special Education monitoring, implementing a new state testing system called AK Star (in addition to normal MAP testing), and also meeting with student councils and soliciting feedback from students of all ages about district programs and classes.

“If we don’t ask our own student population [for feedback],” Burr explains, “Then we’re going to be teaching them what we remember, and that’s going to be tough. We’re in the modern educational world, a lot has changed in the last three years at lightning speed.”

It’s the fourth school year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Burr says the district is still operating with a “Symptom-Free Schools” policy.

“Our mitigation plan did shrink a little bit, went from nine pages to seven pages, which is significant in wording,” he says with a laugh. “We’re still as a school district encouraging masking, especially for situations where people are very close together. And we absolutely are meeting the symptom-free school [requirements], it doesn’t matter the reason. If somebody has an illness, we’re doing our best not to spread anything. We don’t want the common cold, we don’t want the sniffles or stomach flu, going around the classroom. We have learned a lot from that from this period. So mitigation is less, but part of it still affects us. COVID still affects us.”

Burr points to how the district used to issue awards for perfect attendance. That’s no longer the same kind of priority – he says the focus is much more on being able to support students whether they’re physically in the classroom or not. There’s no stigma in staying home sick, now more than ever, he says. It’s all part of establishing a new normal for the school district. 

“We can’t go back to what it was before because our students, many of them don’t remember what it was like to not have COVID in schools,” Burr says. “We have two more grades in the elementary, nobody in middle school knows what regular middle school is like, high school you’ve got one grade left, you’ve got our seniors that remember what high school was like. That’s huge groups of people that don’t know what normal was.”

Plus, Wrangell Public Schools doesn’t have the same resources it did earlier in the pandemic. State and federal programs are drying up, and there isn’t funding for broad testing programs or increased mitigation measures like there once was. Burr says the district plans to scale back its regular COVID testing of students, and just test student-athletes before travel. 

“We don’t have enough tests at this point to continue a program like that without the free tests that we had,” Burr explains, “So we’ve limited it, but we’re still testing for the sake of everyone else. And asking the same from teams coming into Wrangell.”

One major ongoing concern for the district is the financial sustainability of the schools, which is directly related to the student population. In recent years, the district has relied on pandemic relief but those funds are dwindling.

“The year after COVID started, so the 2020-21 year, the student population dropped significantly,” Burr explains. “They were expecting 308, they got 170. That’s a huge funding gap. So the state filled in and gave extra money with the anticipation that they would have been there, you were anticipating more students, but that drops every year. So 75%, 50%, this year is 25%. There will be nothing next year.”

The district’s student population has bounced back somewhat throughout the pandemic. This year’s budget is based on a 263-student population, which is six more students than last year. 

But even with more students and a more than 20% increase in the borough’s contribution to the Wrangell schools this year, officials are discussing a number of options to try and shave more off of the district’s already-trim budget. 

Almost everything is on the table – including moving schools – but there isn’t an easy fix. Burr provides an example: “If we moved the elementary campus to the middle school / high school, which is the bigger building and has space, there currently isn’t a playground and [there isn’t] parking in that residential area. So there are things that would have to be worked out.”

Other discussion points include the possibility consolidating the elementary school into one building – it’s currently in two connected buildings – adding a correspondence school program, or even going to a four-day school week. Burr says no proposed solution is perfect. 

“None of those ideas are happening,” Burr says, “Those are all just possibilities – Looking at it from the standpoint of: we know that something needs to happen. But let’s find the least impacting to our students. We don’t want to say ‘Five years from now we’ll solve the problems.’ We have students for those five years. So we want everybody to have the best solution possible.”

Last year was Burr’s first year as Wrangell superintendent. He says this year feels more smooth: “It was a different feeling than walking in a year ago with me being new and trying to feel things out. So I think we’re much more cohesive as a staff.”

While Burr is no longer new to the job, both the elementary and secondary schools have new principals, positions paid for by federal pandemic relief funding. 

“They’ve hit the ground running – both Mrs. Hilburn and Mr. Burkhart – are diving in and really looking at the practices that have been occurring,” Burr says, “We’re off to a really good start.”

Looking to the long-term future as well, Burr is optimistic. He sees opportunity for expanding what’s available at the secondary schools. That’s one thing he’s already been hearing consistent student feedback about.

“We would love to have electives increased at the upper grades,” Burr says. “We would love to have more students in the upper grades, so that we could have the staff to do more of those electives. The student council mentioned that last year, multiple times, saying, ‘We really want to have options,’ [and] I want them to have options. That’s something that we are also looking at, whether it’s distance learning, or it trying to work out how our core classes will meet our student needs, but then have the things that make the teachers and the students excited to come.”

Plus, Wrangell’s younger grades have more students than the older ones. If that stays the case, that means a larger district population, and more funding with it.

“If COVID had a benefit in Wrangell specifically,” Burr says with a laugh, “We do have a lot of future Wrangellites coming into the system.”

And, he adds, the district’s doors are always open.

“We want more students. If they’re in Wrangell, we want them in our school,” Burr says. “We think we do a wonderful job of educating them, and we encourage any of the [readers]. If you’re thinking about it, please come in and talk to our principals or talk to me.”

That’d be in Wrangell’s district office, located in the same building as Evergreen Elementary School. 

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.