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WILLOW — Performance records have shown that neither traditional beliefs of Beryozova School nor their separation from traditional public schools in the Mat-Su Valley have stopped them from being successful.
Beryozova School serves what is known as an “Old Believer” community of families with Russian heritage, and was recently named a nation Title I Distinguished School by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED). Mat-Su Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Deena Paramo also recognized Beryozova as one of the year’s highest performing schools in a Frontiersman column last month.
“We’ve got some very high achieving kids here,” said first-year principal Carl Chamblee. “They’re not just going through the motions, they’re focused on learning.”
Officially, Chamblee is the school district’s Federal Programs Director, and through his management of programs like English Language Learners he has come to serve Beryozova.
The teachers, however, really run the school on a day-to-day basis, he said.
Elementary school teacher Margaret Brockman has lived and taught in the Old Believer community in Willow for about 25 years, and though she doesn’t speak more than a few words of Russian — language aide Mary Amaryan takes care of that — she knows how to keep her students on task.
The first Russian teacher at the school, Olympiada Langlois, reminded her of one reason why.
“She always said to me, from the very beginning, ‘it’s a good thing you don’t know any Russian, because then the students have to speak to you in English, and they have to learn English fast,’” Brockman said.
With as many students in Kindergarten through 12th grade as one might find in a typical public high school’s class — there are just 19 at Beryozova this year — perhaps there’s a higher sense of accountability, too.
In becoming a “distinguished” school, Beryozova has demonstrated “exceptional student performance for two or more consecutive years,” according to a December press release. However, achievement has been fairly high throughout the last 20 years, according to Brockman’s records. Between 1998 and 2008, Beryozova had 35 seniors, 30 of whom graduated and either went to work or pursued higher education. (The trend has essentially continued in the last few years, though records are still being compiled.)
Last school year, Beryozova received a five-star rating and score of 97.73 in the Alaska School Performance Index, which measures and compares components such as academic achievement, school progress, attendance rate, and college/career readiness.
The school also has two Talented and Gifted, or TAG, students, a school district designation for elementary school students in second through fifth grade who regularly score in the 95th percentile on district-administered assessments in reading, writing and math. According to Brockman, most schools with a student body of 300 or more only have two or three TAG students — that’s 1 percent of the population, compared with Beryozova’s 12.5 percent.
But student success depends on more than standardized test scores and special titles. At Beryozova, the preservation of the families’ Russian culture is vital.
Parent Julie Reutov had all eight of her children go through Beryozova. Several of her daughters went to college for things like psychology, accounting and photography, but in her mind, higher education is not the No. 1 goal.
“Our culture is the most important thing that we don’t wanna lose,” Reutov said.
If her children had attended traditional public schools, “losing Russian” would have been a risk, she said.
One reason is because there are no set periods or scheduled opportunities for students with Russian heritage to study the language in Valley elementary schools. Parents would volunteer to teach it, Reutov said, but there is currently no way to fit it into a typical young student’s school-day schedule.
Similarly, the Old Believers have some 25 to 30 holy days during the school year that would require them to miss school. They would miss about one sixth of the school year in holidays, and maybe more with unexpected absences like sick days.
“Any kid that misses that much school (is) not going to do as well,” Brockman said.
Being pulled out of school for holy days or Russian lessons would also be alienating for students. This issue of “otherness” is perhaps the most significant reason parents in the community have chosen to send their students to Beryozova, as Russian-American children have historically been picked on for their dress, hairstyles, food and language in traditional public schools.
“Nobody can change the situation, if you’re the minority, people are picking on you no matter where you are,” Brockman said. “Even though it might even be in little ways and when nobody’s looking and stuff, there’s still a whole feeling of being put down when you’re not the majority.”
Reutov agreed that, while the situation may be a bit better these days, parents are still concerned about their children and grandchildren going to public schools and growing up without Russian.
That’s not to say the community has completely isolated themselves, however. Reutov and Brockman both spoke of former students who went on to work regular jobs in construction, at restaurants and in offices, and have come to understand and appreciate American culture and customs as adults.
The younger children also have exposure to “the outside world.” As a school with TAG students, Beryozova has been provided with a little funding and extra opportunities to host clubs and extracurricular activities such as chess, Science Olympiad, a robotics workshop, embroidery, Math Derby and more. By selling their embroidered works, too, the children have raised enough money to go on a field trip to Rock-On Climbing Gym and North Bowl in Wasilla.
In this way, perhaps, the Old Believers get the best of both worlds.
“By me having the school out here, I (can) adapt everything to fit them, including their holy days,” Brockman said.
High school teacher Simon Nashold also pointed out that “isolating” themselves, to some degree, is part of the reason Old Believer communities have survived.
“They came here kinda to get away and be in their own area, have their own place where they could live and worship the way that they want to. So, in terms of outside influence and being sheltered, well, that’s part of the culture,” he said. “It’s intentional.”
To read a brief history of the school, visit matsuk12.us/domain/210 .
Contact Caitlin Skvorc at 352-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.