LAST DAY  – Blatchley Middle School eighth-graders sit on the bleachers with family and friends sitting around them Thursday during the annual Rights of Passage ceremony at the school. Students gave speeches and received certificates from principal Ben White during the program which marks the students' transition to high school. Thursday was the last day of school in the district.  (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Sitka Student Travel Hits Ferry Problems

Sentinel Staff Writer
    Seventeen-year-old Joei Vidad is a three-sport athlete at Sitka High School who estimates she missed more than 30 days of school this year competing for the Wolves.
    The incoming senior is on Sitka High’s basketball, volleyball, and track and field teams, and told the Sentinel that these extracurricular activities are a core part of her high school experience, enhanced by the “fun and competitive” trips to high schools throughout the state that they include.
    “I feel like they’re kind of just part of my routine,” she said. “I feel like I should always be doing something just to keep me busy and active... Traveling to different towns really exposes us to better competition rather than stay in town. It just adds more intensity.”
    As for how much school her three sports require her to miss?
    “I feel like there’s too many school days to count,” she said, laughing.
    Vidad stays on top of her schoolwork while away, she said, by practicing effective time management skills and communicating closely with her teachers. She reports routinely showing up early for school or making up tests upon her return to Sitka, and expressed gratitude for the teachers who enable and accommodate such work-arounds.
    “It’s only challenging when I make it challenging,” she said.
    Vidad’s experience of traveling for extracurricular activities is common among Sitka High students.
    Susan Ross, Sitka High’s activities director in the 2017-2018 academic year, estimated that two-thirds of the student body traveled off island for an activity this past year, whether for a musical event, a debate competition, or an away game.
    She said athletes can expect to miss an average of one day for each trip if they are flying – more if they take the ferry – and take anywhere from two to seven trips per season, depending on the sport.
    “Each sport’s different,” she said. “Basketball travel the most. They have the longest season.”
    Only varsity athletes traveled for state tournaments, as “it was too expensive to bring all the kids up north,” but JV and C teams traveled as well within Southeast, “missing a Friday here, and a Thursday and Friday there,” she said.
    Jeremy Strong coaches cross country and track and field at Sitka High, where he also teaches math and P.E. When his teams are traveling, students find downtime to complete the classroom work and homework assignments necessary to stay up-to-date in their classes, he explained.
    “They have to keep up on their homework and continue reading, and all that normal classroom stuff they’re missing,” he said. “I’ve given multiple tests or exams during my travels throughout the year.”
    He said teachers and students work together to “minimize the impact that the travel has.”
    “It’s really hard to avoid,” he said.
    Regular grade checks performed multiple times each month provide one incentive for kids to continue their work while out of town. Students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average in order to participate in extracurricular activities, Ross explained.
    Travel for extracurricular activities not only costs students time in the classroom; it costs the community financially, too.
    Funding for the travel and lodging incurred by extracurricular activities comes from the Sitka School District’s non-instructional funds, just like the Blatchley pool and Community Schools, superintendent Mary Wegner said.
    “It doesn’t come from our operating budget,” she said.
    While most student travel happens at the high school level, middle schoolers also routinely travel for activities, too.
    Wegner said that students at the elementary school level might travel for statewide spelling bee and geography bee events, for example.
    Ross said that this past year Sitka High teams received, in general, $6,000 for their programs in the 2017-2018 academic year. Activities with only one trip, however, received a smaller amount, closer to $1,000.  Additionally, students are required to pay a participation fee, ranging from $100 to $300 depending on the activity or sport.
    Still, activities may require more funding – the basketball teams can run at approximately $35,000 for the season, Ross said.
    To make up the gap, teams fund-raise throughout the community.
    Strong reported that, in his experience, a varsity athlete traveling whose season includes a trip to the state tournament would have to come up with $1,000 to $1,200 for transportation and lodging, a sum which does not include meals, equipment, or incidentals when traveling.
    For some students, of course, this is easier than others.
    “We try really hard to make it not a barrier,” Strong said. “I don’t want that to hold a kid back from the opportunity.”
    When possible, students take the ferry, Ross said, but the ferry schedule picks up only in the summer, which makes it hard for kids to take advantage of the less-expensive travel.
    “If the ferry will work, and by that I mean we’re not missing two or more days of school, then we’ll take the ferry whenever we can,” she said. “But we didn’t do that very much. The ferry schedule, this year, didn’t really work for kids traveling on the weekend.”
    She said the community would “absolutely” save money if students were able to take the ferry more often. A round trip to Juneau might cost $80 to $90 on the ferry, she estimated, and as much as $150 to $200 by plane.
    The ferry schedule has been modified extensively within the past five years, and many educators hope it will change again soon, Ross told the Sentinel. She said an ASAA Region V rep and other stakeholders will advocate at an upcoming meeting with the Alaska Marine Highway on behalf of superintendents and activities directors in Southeast to have a schedule that allows students to leave on Thursday and return on Sunday.
    In the meantime, Ross said, the district is lucky enough to benefit from a small discount from Alaska Airlines,  as well as breaks on certain logistical hurdles. Ross may reserve a block of 10 or more seats well in advance of a trip, and pay one week prior, when she may also adjust the number of seats if a student is sick or unable to travel. She may also change the names on the tickets as close as two days prior to the trip, just in case a roster is modified at the last minute.
    “The perks end up saving us lots of money,” she said.
    When teams travel via ferry, there must be one adult for every 10 kids, Ross said. While the same rule does not pertain to flying, the high school tries to maintain the same ratio.
    In addition to ferry or plane tickets, traveling teams and clubs may require funding for lodging on certain trips.
    When traveling within Southeast Alaska, students will often “house out,” staying with a host family in the town they’re visiting, or stay at the school, Ross said. When they go up north for state tournaments, they often stay in hotels, and are also required to rent cars.
    But the associated price tag for such trips may pay off in student retention.
    Ross said, in some cases, that experience of extracurricular activities, as well as the requisite minimum GPA associated with them, motivates students to show up to class and study.
    “I think extracurricular activities is the reason why some kids go to school every day,” she said. “For some of them, it’s the carrot they need in the classroom to make the grade so they can participate in these activities.”
    On a more immediate level, Vidad said she has peers who are more likely to show up for school if they have a game or extracurricular event that day.
    “I guess it depends on each student,” she said. “I do know some students who say, ‘I have to go to school because I have to travel that day’ or ‘I have practice.’ It is a factor of encouragement for them to keep going.”

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