Ep. 314: Cool Schools: Matsu Central in Alaska

April 12, 2022

Today we talk about Matsu Central in Wasilla, Alaska, originally founded in 1972 to serve students who live in remote locations in the school district. It has since grown tremendously and is now the largest school in that district serving well over 2000 students.

Mike McShane: Hello. And welcome back to another addition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice. And this is an episode of Cool Schools. I hope you’ve been listening to the series thus far. We’re actually in season four, which is hard to believe. But today we are headed to Wasilla, Alaska. I think this is the first school that I’ve profiled in the great state of Alaska, hopefully not the last. But the school we’re talking about today is called MatSu Central. MatSu Central is in the Mat-Su borough school district. And according to its website, it was originally founded in 1972 to serve students who live in remote locations in the school district. It has since grown tremendously and is now the largest school in that district serving well over 2000 students. I don’t want to give it away, but on the interview today, we hear just how big the Mat-Su borough school district is. And I think it can be tough for those of us from the lower 48 to realize just how enormous Alaska is. But MatSu Central is a really interesting school because, again, as it says on their website, every family at Mat-Su Central is partnered with an experienced advisor who works as a liaison between family requests and state requirements, advocating to ensure that each student is properly supported. Each student has access to public education funding, and that allotment may be spent according to the student’s specific needs. Along with a wide variety of online and textbook curricula to choose from, and freedom of pace in which to complete them, Mat-Su Central offers an extensive list of onsite courses, clubs, and workshops to encourage social connection and creative learning. Community partnerships are also plentiful, freeing families to self-select when, where, and how to invest in their child’s learning. So Mat-Su Central is a really interesting school. It’s hybrid homeschooling. It’s personalized learning. It’s Alaska, such an interesting conversation. And we were actually super lucky to get on the podcast, both Stacey McIntosh, who is the current principal of Mat-Su Central and John Brown, who I think recently retired, but was the principal for the last 12 years. So we had the opportunity to talk about the history of the school, how it evolved from being a correspondent style school for students in Alaska to what it is today, and had a chance to talk about the really interesting stuff that’s going on there. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Stacey McIntosh and John Brown of Mat-Su Central High School. Okay. So if I were to get the elevator pitch, if someone walked up to you on the street and wanted in a minute or two for you to do describe Mat-Su Central, how would you describe the school?

Stacey Macintosh: I would say MatSu central is a statewide program. We’re located in Wasilla, Alaska. Last year, we served over 3000 preschool through 12th grade students. That also included quite a few co-enrolled students. We are in the long term relationship business with families, and we offer a lot of choice. In elementary and middle school, parents are ultimately responsible for educating their children. When our students enter high school, we really encourage them to take ownership of their own educational path, which helps prepare them for the real world. I feel like we’ve been doing what the country calls hybrid learning now, we’ve been doing it for the last 12 years. Our system really adapts to students needs versus the student adapting to the systems. We just offer a lot of choice. We do a ILP, which is an Individual Learning Plan. That’s really the cornerstone of our program. It’s developed in partnership with parents, students and a certified teacher. Our advisors, they kind of specialize in different grade levels. We have K-3 advisors, 4-7 advisors, and then we have those high school advisors too, which I think is pretty unique to our program. Our students, they receive a $2,200 allotment, which is funded through the Alaska. This allotment provides fiscal resources for curriculum. They can get print and online. We have lots of choices. Students can participate in field trips, course shares, course shares with their boundary schools, which is kind of nice. So if a parent doesn’t want to teach Algebra One, they can go to their boundary school and take that class there. We have a whole plethora of on-site classes, and we do those multi-age, which really helps support our families. Then we also have 300 vetted community instructional partners that our families can participate in. When our families leave our school after ILP, they are like ready to hit the ground running. They’ve got curriculum in hand. We have a whole bookstore of things. They can check out computers, musical instruments, snowboards, sewing machines, all kinds of things. So when they leave here, they are ready to roll.

Mike McShane: So now are you the school of record for the students or are they technically classified as homeschoolers, and this is sort of a support program for them?

Stacey Macintosh: Yeah, we are the school of record. I don’t love the word homeschool. I feel like in the last eight years I was like, there’s not really a word for our school. Hybrid’s probably it. Hybrid’s probably what we are, because we really do have that. We have kids who do homeschool and strictly stay at home and do their work. And then we have kids that are in our building every single day, taken an on-site class, and really involved in the community and different things. But yeah, we are the school of record.

Mike McShane: And so how did this school come to be? And over the course of the last 12 years, how has it sort of iterated and changed?

John Brown: I’ll take that question, Mike, since I’m the retired principal here and I was here for the last 12 years. We began as a correspondence study school in 1972. The mission of the school at that time was to serve the families that lived in the Mat-Su borough, which is approximately the size geographically of West Virginia. For the first four years, man, it was typical correspondence model. You know, students would get their boxes of stuff depending on what grade level they were in. They would take that home. They’d fill out the worksheets. They’d fill out the workbooks. They’d take the tests, and then they’d either mail it in or they’d drop it off for a teacher to grade, and then they’d get end-of-course grade for that. But to fast forward 40 years past ’72, around 2010, shortly after really the iPhone I think became really widespread. Our genesis of change was really centered around trying to solve some problems, and they were problems that were brought forward to us from our students, from our parents, from our community. One was really dismal and that was the graduation rate of our high school kids. It was about 40%. I mean it had been flat for many, many years and families who had younger children were choosing other homeschool programs in Alaska. There’s quite a few, as one out of six kids in the state of Alaska pre-pandemic were homeschooled. They were going somewhere else, and so our district was losing enrollment to these other programs. And so in response to these problems, I came on as a fourth principal in five years. So there was a lot of turnover there. And first thing we did is we put together a stakeholder group that was composed of parents, of staff members, of students and community members. And the goal of that group was to make specific program improvement recommendations, which we did. And those program improvements really expanded the depth and breadth of our program. Really at the core of that was we realized learning was a face-to-face experience and that you could not exclude that from a student’s growth. And that face-to-face includes a peer group. It includes a caring adult for many of our young adults, our older students that don’t have a caring adult in their life. So we were able to expand our facility and that was critical, which gave us instructional spaces, multi-use instructional spaces that we could start offering on-site classes, clubs, activities. We extended our field trip program. And that really was, when Stacey uses the word hybrid, that became the hybrid model, the first iteration of it. And so the bottom line was folks had just more choice in their child’s education, and for the first time could really personalize their learning experience.

Mike McShane: That’s great. Could you all talk a bit more about the students and the families that you serve? Stacey, I think you said you serve students from all across the state. Is it mostly rural students? Is it in towns? What does your student population look like?

Stacey Macintosh: Yeah, most of our students are in town. Like John said, we have a huge borough, so our stretch of where our students live is quite large. Just our district alone is really large. So they stretch from Palmer to Wasilla, to Sutton, to Anchorage, Eagle River. We have students who even enroll here from the Anchorage school district, which is kind of interesting just because our program is unique and parents want that choice to be able to come out and have choice with their curriculum and their education.

Mike McShane: And so when you’re searching for all of these different programs to be included in the sort of offerings that are available to students, is that something that you all kind of vet centrally? Or how do students know of all the different options that are available to them?

Stacey Macintosh: Yeah, we definitely vet all of our curriculum. We do use some of the same curriculum the district uses, what they use at the brick and mortar schools. But we have a very, very long list of online curriculum, and obviously textbooks and different things. But we have a whole process we go through to vet that. Like John talked about our AAC, we’ve got that parent advisory board. So there’s a process where a family decides they want to use an new curriculum. They fill out a form. They talk about why they want to use it, how it’s good for their kids. They turn it into one of our advisors and she goes through and has highly qualified teachers in that grade level and content review that curriculum. And then we bring it to our AAC board and they talk about it. And then we obviously vote on it to make sure it’s following Alaska state standards. So there’s quite a process to vet those new curriculums. And I could tell you last year we had a lot of it. There was a pretty substantial curriculum shortage last year. So we were getting a lot of new curriculums coming through that new companies had been frantically, I think, creating. And it’s kind of cool with COVID, we learned about a lot of different new curriculums out there.

Mike McShane: So I think two things that set Mat-Su Central apart that are, I think, really interesting and worth kind of diving into more, is the ILP, the Individualized Learning Plan that each student gets, and then the allotment. So maybe we’ll take each one in turn. We’ll start with the ILP. Could you just sort of talk about what that process looks like? Does that happen at the beginning of the school year? Who’s involved with it? What does it actually sort of look like? What do families walk away with after the necessary meetings and everything?

Stacey Macintosh: So yeah, the ILP does happen at the beginning of the school year. It’s the first time we’re maybe meeting a new family or seeing those returning families, which one thing I love about our school is having those families for five, six years. You really get to know them. You know what they’re goals are, and what they’re trying to do for their kids. But yeah, that happens at the beginning of the year. Again, we have those specialized advisors, which is great. But they sit down with families. It really starts out with, what is your kid like? What do they want to do? You know, we don’t just jump right into the curriculum. We really want to create those relationships with our families. And the kid is kind of shocked because they’re used to like, “Oh I have to do math and science.” And they do, they have to do the core stuff with us too and make sure they’re learning those things, but we really get into the, “Are you into archery? Do you like sewing?” And they’re just kind of shocked. Like, “What do you mean I get to choose that?” We’re like, “Yeah.” And that’s the awesome part about this school and this job, is we really do get to offer kids choice. And so we sit down, talk about that. We build their courses right there. We use FileMaker systems, so we have kind of our own student management system that we use. Build the ILP, build their classes. It’s really unique that we have this bookstore here. A lot of homeschool programs in Alaska, they get their classes, but then they’re sent away saying, “Hey, go find curriculum, go do it yourself.” And it’s hard for moms and dads who aren’t teachers to try to go find those things. So we walk them down to a bookstore here. We have tons of used curriculum that we can check out through our library system for free for parents. So those giant geometry textbooks that last 50 years, we can keep recycling those through and parents don’t have to pay for those every year. And then we have new stuff too. We have the new curriculum that’s coming through, and parents can check that out too. With the price, obviously that’s where the allotment comes in to help support that. We talk about, are they going to do PE? Where are they going to do PE? What’s their options for their electives and different things? And like I said, they walk out of here ready to go. They hit the ground running and then we’ll do follow up later on in maybe a month or whatever just to see how things are going. And then depending on the student, as far as their proficiency goes, if they’re below proficient in math or reading or whatever, we progress monitor them just like the school district does. Use all the state assessments that the school district uses. So we follow those kind of same protocols, which is nice. I like to have those checks of balances.

Mike McShane: And so let’s say I have a ninth or 10th grade student and they’re taking geometry. During that ILP meeting, am I right to say that they have the option of someone sits down with them and says, “Okay, so you want to take geometry, or you need to take geometry, because that’s what this state standards are telling us. Here are three or four different curricula, here are online programs. Our school offers in- person geometry.” Am I right that that’s the sort of suite of things that are offered to kids where they have a choice to do something online, or in-person, or some combination of the two. And there’s different curricula even between that. So it’s not even that you have choice across the different subjects that you study, but even within the subject you have choices of how you do it. Am I getting that right?

Stacey Macintosh: Yeah, absolutely. It really is a la carte. Yeah. We have, I think, four probably different geometry just textbooks on site. And then depending on how a kid learns, some of our online programs are more video based. So if they’re more of a visual audio learner, they can do that. Some of our online programs are basically like a kind online textbook where they just kind of read it. So depending on the type of learner, they have those options as well.

I talked about course share a little bit. Our course shares, our students can take up to two classes at their boundary school. So if they were like, “Oh my goodness, I can’t take geometry at home. There’s no way I can learn it that way. I need to teacher.” If there’s room, so we get permission from principals at those schools to make sure there’s space for our students. But yeah, they could take up to two classes at their boundary school. There’s lots of choice.

John Brown: Mike, if I could jump in on math. I’m glad you brought up geometry, high school geometry, because one of the things that we learned from our parents and this is another example of how we respond to stakeholder input. But when you get into pre-algebra and above, the math is one area that can be an area of struggle for parents to support in strictly a home-based environment. And so we came up with the math lab support program that supports students that need help with their math program, whatever it might be that they’re in, whether it’s an online class, whether it’s a face-to-face class, an at-home textbook course. But students can come in during these open math lab times and essentially get one-to-one tutoring with our certified math teachers here on staff, who are advisors, but also are highly qualified in mathematics.

Mike McShane: So now we have the allotment. So you’d mentioned before $2,200 that students receive, though, to be clear, it’s sort of the district still controls the dollars. So it’s not like money that’s just given to families to spend. How does the allotment work and what is sort of available to people? How’s the money managed? Is that something done by the school? Is it a third party vendor? Like how does all of that work?

John Brown: Well, I’ll take that question. You know, that was, I think one of the critical things that allowed our school to change from a correspondence program to this hybrid, personalized learning model. When the state established policy at the state level that correspondence programs had the authority to use part of the base student allocation funding. That’s the funding that goes to individual students enrolled in districts throughout the state. And for those students to enrolled in these correspondence programs, that program could set up a student allotment account. And so the authority at the state level was really critical for stability in terms of folks being able to count on that resource being there. The amount of the allotment does vary from program to program through the state. It’s our district policy that establishes the levels at Mat-Su Central for our students. What is unique about our allotment program here at Mat-Su Central is Stacey referenced that base student allotment of $2,200 per student. Those funds are managed in that FileMaker program that’s kind of our customized student management system. That’s another very important piece of our program is the customization of having our own student management system that we can adapt change as new curriculums come into play. We can manage our bookstore inventory in there. But that allotment really is a great equalizer, I believe in education and these kinds of programs. It gives every child an opportunity to do a personalized learning plan. Without that, I think this is a very difficult program to implement. We do have tiers of that allotment. So for our students that are on a high academic pathway, their junior and senior year, their allotment has a higher value of $2,500, and then $2,700. Two more things about the allotment I think that are worth knowing. One is every household, most of our families have multiple children in our program. It’s also a household allotment, which means that we treat every home as kind of its own school with its own budget. And so if there’s a student that’s struggling and needs more tutoring support, families can transfer funds from child to child within the family. And the other thing that I think is really powerful, which is another state policy that we were able to get passed through our parent advocacy group. And that is at the end of the school year, whatever funds are left unspent in that student allotment, that can roll over. So that family can really make wise educational decisions and choices in long term planning. What that’s starting to look like is families now are creating these savings accounts so that when their student is in high school, they have the opportunity to enroll full time at our local Mat-Su College and pay for college credit with those funds. Yeah. So it’s really dynamic, and I really believe that creates this tremendous parent engagement and stewardship in the process of how those resources are managed and used for their children.

Mike McShane: And so, as we’ve been talking about the allotment and other things, I think, I hope, folks are listening to this and saying, “Wow, this is really cool. And we should have schools in our area that are doing something like this.” But a question that frequently comes up is how much does this cost? Is it possible for other districts to do this? So I’d be interested in just like, are you just working with the same amount of money that any other school district has, and this is just the way that you’re deploying it? Do you have special revenue coming in from the state or is this just, like I said, it’s just what any school district gets and you’re just using it creatively.

John Brown: Well, one of the policy changes that we’re trying to change at the state level. Currently there’s funding for a student in the traditional school setting that’s a hundred percent of the base student allocation. That can be greater if a child has special needs. There’s multipliers for that. Or in rural Alaska there’s multipliers for that also. But for a correspondent study student, it’s fixed at 90% of that base student allocation funding. The reason that’s problematic is if there’s a child that has special needs and there’s certain services at their boundary school, like Stacey’s talked about a little bit through course sharing and things, that requires more staffing to support that student there is no adjustment in the funding. And so we’re still working to get that 90% correspondence funding metric eliminated. A few years back it was actually at 80%. So we were able to advocate and get it raised to 90%, but that is a problem. That is something that still needs to be dealt with. What I think is critical is the fact that funding for that student allotment is governed at the state level. My concern is if that was governed at the local level, the security of that being there in the future, I think it would be on shaky ground. And so I think the fact that’s established at the state level just gives us more certainty. And that’s something that’s really critical in these programs, Mike, is that parents have to be able to make long-term planning to for their children. And they have to able to count on these things. Sometimes in the public school system, you have new superintendent come in, or a new school board and things shift in a special interest type of way. Here it really is parent driven. We are really a program that reflects what it looks like when you have strong input from the ground up, not the top down. I hope that answered that.

Mike McShane: No, for sure. And it sort of opened up another one. So funding was part of this as well. But you know I’m kind of a public policy guy, so I’m interested in how schools that try to do creative things are either sort of assisted or hindered by public policy. So are there particular policies that Alaska has in place that makes your lives easier? And are there policies that make your life more difficult? Again, thinking about if there are folks in other states who say we would like to have a school like that here, what are the types of policies that need to be in place in order for that to happen? And again, what are the types of policies that say if we could get rid of this, it would make our lives easier?

John Brown: Man. What a great question. When I first came here as a principal in 2010, the correspondence regulations at that time really were a cookbook. It was all about how the money is spent, and how the money is managed, and how the money is tracked in the correspondence world with the allotment. There was a certain number of monthly contacts required. And these were blanket policies that disregarded the individual needs of children. We worked hard those first few years to change the regulations to simply focus on the individual child. How is that individual child doing? And so the resources that we use, apply, mobilize are greater for a child that has greater academic need than for a child that’s just up and cooking and doing great. There is a requirement to modify that Individualized Learning Plan when a child is below proficient, as Stacey had talked about the ILP very well. That’s a great policy because really at the center now of the correspondence regs is the individual needs of a child. It wasn’t always that way. Some other policies at the state level that I think really allow us to be nimble and respond to our families, has to do with curriculum autonomy. Stacey had talked about the process we go through to vet curriculum and ensure that it’s free of bias and other things. We have our own internal curriculum review process so that we don’t have to go through the layers at a school board level with the curriculum council. And then in a given year, we could have dozens of curriculums coming through that parents would like to use with their children. In this day and age, parents do tremendous research on what is available for their child in terms of curriculum options. They know their child best, their learning style, their strengths, their weaknesses. Our parents come in and they have done their homework and the things they want to use. And so just that curriculum autonomy, which is at the state level for policy, gives schools the authority to do that. The one thing that is a little challenging, though, with all these policies that give us this autonomy, this nimbleness, this flexibility, it also gives parents some nimbleness, flexibility in things. And one of the things that sort of challenges, we have to determine proficiency for a child. It would be great if we could use one measurement to do that. The state test is a good tool to kind of use for of that. But in the state of Alaska, parents have the authority to opt out of any testing. They’re pretty savvy in terms of what they know what their rights are. And so we often run up against this conflict where we have to ensure proficiency in terms of how we prove how the allotment is used and expended. But the same time we have a high percentage, Stacey, of parents that opt out of state testing every year. In fact, what was it last year? What percent that opted out of the state testings?

Stacey McIntosh: Probably 70% percent or more.

Mike McShane: Oh wow.

Stacey Macintosh: But we give them choice in testing, which is nice. We do the NWEA. We have a couple different ways to show proficiency, which is nice. Again, it goes back to that choice for parents. They don’t want to state test because they don’t want the government looking at them. So we have other options for them where we can gather that information, and we can give them a lot of choice in that area. So it’s nice.

Mike McShane: The school is coming up on its 50th anniversary. And so a question I like to kind of end these interviews with is looking forward. So obviously the school has this great, proud, coming up on 50 years of history. When you look at the school in the next year, in the next five years, in the next 10 years, what do you think the future holds for Mat-Su Central?

Stacey Macintosh: Well, the way our enrollment’s going, we’re growing and growing every year, and we’re hoping to be in a new building, hope to have a permanent home for ourselves. We’ve been in a leased building for forever and we’re working on that. It’s supposed to be happening here in the next couple years, and I think it’d be awesome to have a space of our own and really create that space to support our families. We are very family oriented. We’ll have little babies crawling around all the way up to high schoolers in our building at the same time.

It’s very multi-age and our space needs to reflect that, and that’s not what a normal school is. We need little preschool playground equipment, but we also need places for high schoolers to hang out. And it’s just going to be really fun to open up that new space eventually and give the parents what they’ve been needing for quite some time. And I just think it’s going to grow. I keep saying this is the school of the future. It’s the school of the future. And I do hope other states get the opportunity to have that experience that our parents have, because it is unique. Parents move up here and they’re like, “There’s nothing like this in my state where I came from,” and they’re just super excited to see what we have to offer.

John Brown: There’s a quote, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” And I really believe that the COVID disruption, the pandemic reset, that great pause that forced many families to experience homeschooling is going to change the stereotype of that word homeschool. And I think that has been a problem in terms of just the whole stereotype and how we tend to pigeonhole things. I’m really excited that more folks are going to come to the homeschool type model. I really think the best of both worlds is this hybrid where family have the choice, not the obligation, not the assignment. But they have the choice if they want to bring their student in for those face-to-face classes or those clubs or those activities and how they personalize and create that ILP. I see more folks coming to this in the future, more families that are going to have the ability to telework from home. We’re seeing that our in local community. Families are moving into Mat-Su that can really live anywhere in the country. They’re choosing Alaska as a place to raise their children. And I’m really excited about the future of programs like Mat-Su Central. We just want to give families options. This isn’t the solution for every child, but it is a great option for a lot of kids. And we just need to make sure we try and provide that in more places for more families.

Mike McShane: Well, Stacey Macintosh and John Brown, thank you so much for joining the podcast and talking about your cool school.

Stacey Macintosh: Thanks, Mike.

John Brown: Thanks, Mike. Appreciate it.

Mike McShane: Well, that was a wonderful conversation. How interesting was that? So many schools that we profile on here are new schools, particularly schools that are doing things that are kind of innovative and different. These are schools that have cropped up recently, whether it was because the technology became available or the funding became more flexible. But to see a school that started almost 50 years ago kind of slowly evolve, and learn, and solve new and different problems was really, really interesting. So it was wonderful to get that history. It was super interesting to hear about the present and to look towards the future. And that idea of the allotment, right? $2,200 to find the stuff that works best for you. The flexibility that they’ve granted families to be able to spread it amongst different kids based on their various needs, the partnerships with the community, the freedom of choice that families have, but still within not sort of throwing families to the wolves, even though that’s probably like a terrible like Alaska reference to make there, but sort of not making, I was going to say pushing them out on an iceberg by themselves and that’s not any better either. But not making families have to be on their own as they make a lot of these decisions. Holding their hands, helping them choose curricula, kind of setting some boundaries around their choices to say this is the type of stuff that we’ll support. Yes, you have four different choices for geometry, but you don’t have 4,000 choices. We’re going to help sort of narrow these things to help you out as you do that. Such an interesting school. And I think some of the peculiarities of Alaska make schools like this necessary, like the size of the school district, and the diversity of students that are up there, and the reasons that are there sort of set people’s minds up to say, “Oh, we should do something different. We should allow for this more flexibility.” But I think the underlying logic of Mat-Su Central would apply to schools all over the country. And I think that schools, whether you’re in Indianapolis, Indiana, or Miami, Florida, or Sun Valley, Idaho, whatever could benefit from thinking about how do we meet the needs of each of our individual students? How do we partner with the community? How do we give people choices while still supporting them while they do it? I think so many interesting lessons that can apply to so many other situations. Well look, as always, this is the point in the program where I encourage you to subscribe and rate and like, all of the necessary social things to promote this podcast. Again, Cool Schools is part of the broader network of EdChoice Chats that we put on. So obviously I do Cool Schools, season four here. I’m now on the neighborhood of dozens of schools all across the country, public, private, urban role, lots of different things that are going on there that are worth talking about and learning from. Our teams that work in the states give a monthly kind of political update of the state of school choice across all of these different states, and what’s going on there. Our polling team, myself and some of our fellow researchers, talk about our monthly tracker, a monthly representative poll of Americans all across the country. So if you want to have your finger on the pulse of school choice politics, this is a podcast for you. If you want to have your finger on the pulse of school choice research, this is a podcast for you. If you want to have your finger on the pulse of public opinion, this is a podcast for you. So that’s why you should subscribe, like it, check it out. And also, please, especially if you’re new or you’re brought to this because you’re a fan of this particular school or school model, check out our website, www.edchoice.org. We recently redid it. It’s super user friendly. It’s awesome, and you should check it out. And I look forward to talking to you all again, as I profile another cool school, or show up on one of our other EdChoice Chats.