Students head back to class Monday, August 29 in Petersburg as the new school year gets underway. Enrollment numbers have increased in two of the three schools and the district welcomes several newcomers to its faculty.
Combined enrollment at the three schools is an estimated 473 students to start off the year, up from 431 just two years ago. Enrollment numbers can change throughout the year and are not made official until later in the fall. However it looks like the district continues to reverse a long trend of declining student counts.
At the high school enrollment has increased – at 157 to start of the year, but it’s down in the middle school – at 93. The middle school has started one to one laptops for seventh and eighth grade students this year. Unlike the program at the high school level, it’s only during the school day, those laptops don’t go home with the seventh and eighth graders.

“So we’ve gone with 7th and 8th graders as well as kind of train ‘em up for the high school where they’ll get it in the morning after PE and they’ll take the same laptop with them all day long and they’ll check it in at the end of the day and kind of meet with some teachers,” explained Principal Rick Dormer. “We’ve also added in the middle school, planners. All students have a written planner. And that’s kind of part of the process too. They’re great and they’re using them, checking with the teacher at the end of the day and trying to get homework written down.”

The district in the past has tried to help students making the transition from elementary school to middle school. Dormer said this year the high school is trying to offer a few more supporting programs for freshman, making the change from middle school to high school.

“I think if you consider our sixth graders kind of a freshman and ninth graders as a freshman, we see this kind of transition times are really key to support kids,” Dormer said. “We’ve focused on sixth graders a lot because they’re younger and it is kind of a scary leap but now we really recognize we can do more for our freshmen.”

Dormer says the supports include required planners for the freshmen and mentoring. The upper grades in the district will be seeing a couple new programs this year. One is Green Dot, something that Petersburg Mental Health Services has done around the greater community.

“Green Dot is a power based violence prevention program and so that’s bullying, sexual assault, domestic and dating violence,” explained school counselor Rachel Etcher. “So we often talk about these topics but we’re not giving people the strategies and the tools to deal with, how do I intervene, if I’m a bystander, how do I help, instead of sitting silent. So this is giving kids the tools to be able to intervene when it’s safe to do so.”

Small signs with green dots and red dots could be going up around the school in wintertime and the program will focus on high school grades.
Another new program is Interact, which is a Rotary International program for service projects, networking and development for teens. Here in Petersburg it will be available for eight through 12 grades.

The middle and high schools have two new teachers; both worked last year in Metlakatla. Joyce Metsa will be teaching algebra and geometry classes in the high school.
“I really like students to keep up with their assignments,” Metsa said, describing her teaching style. “I like to interact with students a lot during class and so I spend a lot of time sitting with students to make sure everybody’s doing well. I want everybody to feel good about their ability also and to feel successful. So I am pretty demanding I suppose in that regard.”

Metsa taught math in Metlakatla for a decade and is originally from the upper peninsula of Michigan. She has also taught in southern California and Nulato, Alaska. Metsa coached a robotics team in Metlakatla and may try to start that program up for seventh and eighth graders here if she can land some grant money.

Another new teacher also moved here after one year of teaching in Metlakatla. Rowan Beraza is originally from Fairbanks. She’ll be teaching Spanish and English language and literature to high school and middle school grades.

“I don’t use a text book,” said Beraza of her teaching style. “I like a lot of situational learning, lots of inprov for the Spanish class at least. I like the idea that at the end of Spanish 1 if they got dropped into a Spanish speaking country they could order food, go to the market, they could really function and interact with people. And for English literature as well I like a lot of discussion. I like the idea that knowledge is being applied practically to life and it’s helping to incorporate really well informed citizens to our society.”
Beraza spent her summers growing up in the Dominican Republic and will bring her knowledge of that culture to her classes. She also wants to start a yoga and mindfulness program twice a week after school for teachers in the district.

The elementary school opens with one new teacher, Eliza Warmack in the fifth grade. She’s lived in Petersburg for four years and has done some substitute teaching before landing the full time job here.
Warmack has taught two years in Sand Point, in kindergarten and fifth and six grade math along with one year of kindergarten in Portland, Oregon. But it’s been six years since she was in the classroom full time and she said she’s diving into the technology available now in Petersburg.

“Smartboards and working with aps and having the kids be creative with media is definitely something I’m going to work on as a teacher this year,” Warmack said. “Getting outside is definitely a top priority. I’ve put together a unit for social studies where we’ll be getting out and using different equipment, GPS units, and hopefully working with some partners in the community, the forest service, doing some mapping, interesting stuff like that.”

Across the district, teachers, aides and other staff have been busy training and in meetings, getting ready for students. Elementary principal Teri Toland is confident staff will be ready for the start of school. “I think all teachers and aides can agree that there gets to be just that point in the summer and you start getting that energy and feeling OK it’s getting time for school and it’s fun,” she said. “And come that first day it’s exciting for all of us and usually teachers aren’t sleeping that night before, just a phenomenon. But, we’re going to be ready and very happy to have all our new and returning students.”

Enrollment looks like it’s also up at Rae C. Stedman, with 223 students expected at the start of the year up from 214 at the end of last year. Toland said the school has the staff to handle those numbers. “Our numbers in our classrooms are still down in 20, 22, I think 22 is our biggest class. We’re so lucky to have those low numbers; we know that that really makes a difference in education.”

Toland said the school plans to start up a number of new clubs this year, from robotics, to legos, running and yearbook.

Editor’s note: this story has been corrected to note the Rotary program starting up for teens is Interact, not Rotaract, which is for young adults.