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Lake and Peninsula School District switches to "subsistence calendar."

KDLG/Lawrence Hamilton

In what is a unique solution for one of Alaska’s most unique school districts, the Lake and Peninsula School District (LPSD) will change to a school year based around subsistence activities.

The Lake and Peninsula School District is comprised of thirteen schools in a district almost the size of West Virginia and with very few roads. The only way in or out is by airplane, which makes visiting the district a prohibitively costly and time-consuming affair.

For the families in these villages, ranging from Clark's Point in the north to Perryville in the south, subsistence is a way of life.

A lot of things are unique in this part of the state, but one thing it shares with the rest of Alaska is the struggle to remain financially viable in the face of dwindling revenues from the state.  

So the LPSD has come up with the “subsistence calendar.” A school year based around the subsistence activities of the villages.

Under the new schedule, the school year opens on September 5 and finishes on May 1, a reduction of twenty days.

While other districts have tried four-day school weeks and other budget cutting measures, LPSD is the first school district in the state to try reducing the number of days on the calendar.

“Our villagers like this, it respects their culture and respects their subsistence,” LPSD Superintendent Ty Mase said.  

Mase did acknowledge that the calendar is a cut.

“It is a creative cut,” Mase said. “Instead of running a stripped down ineffective school system for a number of mandated days, we have asked the commissioner and Department of Education if we can cut the fluff out of our instructional days and basically reduce our school year.”

While this subsistence calendar will create more hunting and fishing opportunities, students are going to be expected to work harder throughout the school year. It will reduce the number of in-service days, professional days, and could potentially limit the number of out-of-school field trip opportunities.

“It’s tough to get your kids back in August,” Mase said. “There is berry picking, the state fair, and commercial fishing still going.”

“In May, it’s the increased daylight along with migratory birds and state testing. The intensity drops off and that is what we are looking at here, reducing our school year but upping our intensity.

The new calendar will result in 77.5 hours less of instructional time, but should trim the budget between $400,000 and $500,000 dollars.

Those savings will come from a reduction of salaries for certified, classified and administrative staff. Other savings will be found in reducing student and staff transport, food service, utilities and general maintenance.

The subsistence calendar is really a return to how schools used to be run said Lake and Peninsula Borough Mayor Glen Alsworth Sr. He thinks the district could actually get some money out of the idea. 

“You know, I suggested to Ty Mase, the superintendent, that he should franchise the idea and every district that falls in on it we get a percentage of what they save,” Alsworth Sr. said.

“I think it is going to be effective,” he added.

While the new calendar will expect more intensity from the students, it will also require more intensity from the staff of the schools.  

“It is just going to be one of those things where we have to be very focused on education and where we are putting our time and effort,” Newhalen principal Ed Lester said. “It has got to be on the students.”

Educators in the district understand the concerns about a reduced amount of time in the classroom, but feel the calendar will benefit teachers who won’t have to play catch up with students who miss the first few weeks of school for subsistence anyway.

“In reality this is a really good move for LPSD. It gives those kids three weeks to fish, to subsistence fish for their family, to commercial fish and make money,” Nondalton English and social studies teacher Emily Mulcahy said.  

“I think our kids work really hard when they are in their seats but if they are not in their seats, they’re not learning,” she said.  

The subsistence calendar is the boldest move, but not the only cost saving measure the district has taken up. There have been additional cuts to “extracurricular outliers”, such as music, wrestling and track and field. The district is looking at cuts into cross country, student government and the student teacher program.

“It’s just across the board,” Mase said.

Part of the plan for the change was to keep some programs like pre-school and hot lunches untouchable.

While the new calendar and cuts may stabilize the current budget, there is concern about what may come out of the state Senate.

“If the Senate comes out with their 5% cut, education in Alaska would just be reeling,” Mase said.

“That would put us at a 1.1 million dollar operating deficit and I am not sure how we would even get there.” 

Cathleen Must has four daughters enrolled in the district and thinks the calendar will fit in with the lifestyle in the district.

“It will be alright,” she said. “If it all comes together it will be just right.”

She acknowledges the other cuts in the budget are concerning but is also confident people will pull through.

“I think our community is strong and we have a lot of volunteers and a lot of fundraisers,” she said. “We will get it done.”

For now the district is focusing on making the calendar work.

“The real measuring stick will be student achievement,” Mase said. “If we can’t hold student achievement then we are going to have to take a tough look at this and decide whether we want to continue on or not.

The calendar has been approved by the Alaska Department of Education and the Lake and Pen School Board and will go into effect this upcoming school year.

Other districts are watching Lake and Pen’s bold experiment and time will tell if this subsistence school calendar is a workable model for a rural education.

Reach the author at lawrence@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.