Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 8:53 PM on Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sign-waving students show support for teacher

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Ninilchik School students line up in support of Kate Fjelstad, a teacher they feared being cut when the school loses a .5 time teaching position due to a predicted drop in enrollment.

Hearing through the grapevine a favorite teacher was being pink-slipped, Ninilchik School students took their support to the street Monday. More than two dozen students lined up along the Sterling Highway in front of the school, waving signs in support of Kate Fjelstad, a teacher at Ninilchik School since 2006.

The students' concerns were premature, said Steve Atwater, superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"No decision has been made. The teacher the students have been protesting about has not been cut," said Atwater.

The following day it was determined that, instead of Fjelstad, a half-time reduction would be made to Ninilchik's music program, with teacher Eric Simondsen.

"What will end up happening is that we'll look for a music teacher that can be both here and at Chapman School so we can keep our music program going," said Ninilchik Principal Terry Martin.

A resulting domino effect will impact Simondsen's wife, Mary, who currently teaches music at Chapman. The two came to the district in the 2009-2010 school year.

"My understanding is the (Chapman) position will be advertised," said Martin of the opening that will occur at the pre-K through eighth-grade Anchor Point School.

The district builds the teaching staff at each school based on a formula tied to student enrollment.

"If you have the kids, you get the teachers," said Atwater.

Although the district's enrollment overall appears stable, Ninilchik and Chapman are the two schools on the southern Kenai Peninsula that show a decline for the coming school year. As a result, each of the two schools will lose a .5 teaching position. At Chapman, the teacher to be cut is Holly Alston, a part-time K-1 teacher who has been with the district since Nov. 1, said Principal Sharon Trout.

Students concerned Felstad was being cut stayed along the highway through Monday morning, waving "Save Kate" signs and drawing honking horns from passing motorists. Fjelstad began teaching in Ninilchik at the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year. Originally from South Dakota, she spent her first year with the district teaching English at Soldotna Middle School.


Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Kate Fjelstad, second from left, was one of the new faces at Ninilchik School in 2006. Also hired that school year were, from left, Lisa Nissley, Kate Van Saun, Linda Brady and Kim Hays.

"We need to keep her because she connects with students no matter what grade," said John Cooper, a senior who has had Fjelstad as a teacher for each of his high school years.

Adults also voiced support for Fjelstad.

"This teacher is not one to let go," said Margy Teed, known in Ninilchik as "Nana Banana" for her story-telling talent.

Ninilchik Principal Terry Martin, who is leaving the district at the end of this school year, and Tim Peterson, the district's human resource director, each spoke with the demonstrating students.

"We fielded some calls from the community with concerns about kids being along the highway," said Martin.

"I talked to them, as did Mr. Peterson. There were a number of parents there with them. They were protesting peacefully. They were not in the road. This is how free speech works."

Parent and substitute teacher Lara McGinnis, who stood with the students, said an Alaska State Trooper stopped to make sure the roadside demonstrators were safe and emphasized the morning as a learning experience.

"He said how thankful he was for the right that allowed them to express their voice, he explained the right-of-way laws, told them to stay safe and said to keep using their voice," said McGinnis.

In the afternoon, believing their voice had been heard, the students returned to classes and to begin phase two of their demonstration: writing to school board members and district administrators.

Learning Felstad had been spared, McGinnis said, "I'm sorry we lost a half a position, but we saved the most effective teacher we have in our high school without a doubt. These kids will now go through life knowing they have a voice and that it can make an impact."

Addressing rumored causes for the reduction of the two .5 teaching positions in Ninilchik and Chapman, Atwater said it had nothing to do with external forces such as insurance costs resulting from President Obama's health care program, but was strictly due to enrollment.

In response to suspicions that a half-time janitor was being added to Ninilchik School's staff, Atwater said, "No, we wouldn't be adding any staff."

Feljstad could not be reached for comment.