The Skagway School Board has given approval to hire new science and math teachers for the next school year.

Misty McNellis of Wasilla, Alaska, was approved by the board for the position of science teacher, and Jessica Ward of Skagway was approved for the role of the school’s math teacher.

Superintendent Dr. Josh Coughran said McNellis impressed the hiring committee during the application process, adding that she is “dynamic” and “super-organized.” Board President John Hischer said Ward’s experience in connecting math to other courses outside the classroom separated her from the rest of the applicants.

Hiring McNellis was approved unanimously; Ward’s hiring was approved 4-1, with Board Member Cara Cosgrove against.

Prior to the vote, Cosgrove told Ward – who was in attendance – that her vote against had nothing to do with her application. Cosgrove continued to say that if the board refused to hire Ward, and kept current math teacher Dottie DeMark in her position, “in my opinion we will have done what’s best for our students.”

“Another reason that I will vote against this has to do with staff rapport,” Cosgrove said. “We have our entire high school department here, stating their support for someone they’ve worked side-by-side with…that speaks volumes.”

This decision sounds another note in the ongoing story of DeMark’s push to keep her current position as mathematics teacher. Several students and teachers attended the meeting and spoke in support of DeMark.

“I love being in her class, though I’m not exactly the most excited about math, she makes it something that’s worthwhile,” sophomore Danny Brady said.

DeMark has expressed displeasure at her role with the school shifting, and on April 25 addressed one of the criticisms she said had been levied against her – that the secondary math program is lacking an environment of engaged students.

DeMark said she feels “ambushed” to be told she is not engaging students, and that she feels like she is being punished for something that she was not given the opportunity to fix.

“I am absolutely devoted to making whatever changes are necessary next year,” DeMark said. “I am not a person who doesn’t take criticism well. I in fact take it and turn it around, that gives me motivation.”

McNellis will be filling the shoes of Skagway science teacher Erik Wortman, who will conclude his tenure with the school district with the close of the 2017 school year. Wortman will be partaking in the University of Washington’s WWAMI program, which trains and prepares physicians in five states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. He’ll be studying out of the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus.

As the cap to his third year of teaching in Skagway draws near, Wortman said he wants to let all the local people know that he is appreciative for the opportunity to teach at the school, as well as the training and support he’s received through his time volunteering with the fire department.

“I’m just extremely gracious for all that, and it will definitely be missed,” Wortman said. “Anchorage is…it’s not a small community, and it won’t feel the same.”

Wortman said he’s enjoyed teaching science to Skagway’s kids; that even after three years, he still gets to learn more about the subject with every lesson.

“It’s been a really steep learning curve,” Wortman said. “Even the classes that I teach the most, like biology, its fascinating the details and the things that I pick up.”

There have been many rewarding moments for him as a teacher over the last three years.

Cross-country has been a “really cool” opportunity to for Wortman to travel with the students, and see them grow as athletes. Wortman also recently accompanied the students of the Climate Change Project to the Marshall Islands, an invitation that left him feeling “totally honored.”

Other moments, such as watching student’s push themselves in the school’s S.T.E.M. class, also stand out to him.

“Where students have on their own taken on some courageously challenging, difficult projects, and have not always been successful, I think in their eyes,” Wortman said.

Seeing students struggle through successes and failures as they worked on their projects, acquiring skills as they worked “just blows my mind,” Wortman said.

An interest in the idea of problem-solving for people and an interest in health and nutrition are two things drawing Wortman to the field of medicine. He expects to focus in primary care, though he has a strong interest in emergency medicine as well.

“I think its just comes about from working as an EMT,” Wortman said. “But also just this kind of idea of high-intensity, quick decision-making, strong leadership, those things that lend themselves to an emergency room.

“That’s where I think I’d like to end up, but you know in Alaska at any hospital, any small hospital, there’s a doctor that’s going to be in the emergency room and they’re also going to be doing general practice and family practice.”

Wortman said he hopes to return to Southeast Alaska or rural Alaska when his time in medical school is finished. Local parent and School Board Member Darren Belisle said he thinks Wortman’s been shown to care about the kids in the community, and as such has pushed them to learn.

“He’s going to be missed,” Belisle said. “I think he’s been a great asset.”