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Learning on the Last Frontier

The one-room schoolhouse is alive and well in Alaska

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By WILLY STERN
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Thorne Bay, Alaska
The Southeast Island School District in remote Alaska is a tad different from yours and mine. Take the case of Garrick Obern-dorfer, who commutes to the Thorne Bay school over a half mile of ocean in a 15-foot skiff, a bit tricky in the pitch dark or in four-foot waves. Garrick is 15. On the opening day of trapping season—think mink, otter, and ermine—scads of students skip school (as do some teachers) to run their trap lines. No worries. It’s a perfectly legit excuse to be late to school if you kill a deer en route and stop to dress it. Deer tacos are popular here. In science class, students dissect—what else?—a deer. When a visiting writer goes to a principal’s house for supper, he isn’t sent home with an extra slice of apple pie; he’s given a beaver pelt. Meanwhile, a local fellow will skin your black bear for just $50 ($75 if it’s over 6 feet).

Alaska kayaks

Courtesy Southeast Island S.D.

The school district has 161 students. Seven of the district’s schools have only one or two teachers, handling all comers, K-12; Thorne Bay is the mothership, boasting 73 students and a wood shop where students are putting the finishing touches on a hand-hewn cedar-strip canoe.

Bullying and cliques are unknown here. While the twin scourges of weed and booze have devastated village life in Alaska, “it’s just not cool to do drugs or alcohol here,” reports Triston Nyquest, a Thorne Bay ninth-grader. Patrick Koonrad, for example, is one of 11 students at the Coffman Cove School. By his own admission, Patrick was flunking out of his massive public school in Washington state two years ago when he ventured north to live with his uncle. “In Washington, nobody at school cared about me. I basically had fallen between the cracks,” he explains. “Here the teachers really care about me. We all get individual attention from teachers. So we all try.” That attention makes a difference. All but one of these schools do well on standardized tests. “Everyone in this school is like my family,” adds 11-year-old Emma Hammond. “We all look after each other.” Emma attends Naukati School, with 19 students. 

What constitutes fun here? Not video games or hanging out at the mall; for Coffman Cove students, the closest store is 55 miles away. In Thorne Bay, kids don’t buy dope; they pick up a can of whipped cream and spray it at each other in the town park, then run down to the town dock for a quick dip in the frigid ocean. Yes, the one-room schoolhouse is alive and well in southeast Alaska. It’s Little House on the Prairie meets Deadliest Catch.

To be sure, this school district—with seven facilities on Prince of Wales Island and one on the wind-swept southern tip of Baranof Island—has its amusing quirks. Three of the schools are so isolated they can only be reached by boat or floatplane. Local pastor Phil Clark doubles as a maintenance worker at Thorne Bay School. He explains, “Teaching evolution is Satan’s way of trying to sneak into the classroom.” A school yoga class was temporarily shut down when some Christian parents became convinced the course was teaching eastern religions.

Megan Fitzpatrick, the creative Berkeley-educated science teacher, is careful not to use the word “environmentalism” for fear of offending. Around these parts, tree huggers are the bad guys—supposedly standing in the way of economic development. Keep in mind that just two decades ago, this was a bustling school district with more than 20 schools. The district was so flush with cash that it had a plane and kept a pilot on the payroll. The island’s wealth was built on the back of the now dormant logging industry, whose big players pulled out when the last choice trees were felled.

You’d think that folks would be clamoring to get their kids into this idyllic school district. After all, these islands are the last American frontier. They’re home to untold numbers of black bear, wolves, bald eagles, and elk. The surrounding ocean holds sea otters, humpback whales, orcas, and sea lions. Some students do a quick check of their crab pots after school, before archery practice starts. Those crabs represent dinner here where subsistence living is oft the norm. This stunningly beautiful land is paradise for kayakers, hunters, and hearty folks who don’t mind that the closest hospital could be days away.

Few of the Americans from the Lower 48 who do make it up to Alaska ever catch a glimpse of these islands, unless it’s from the second deck of their cruise ship. This is float-by, not even fly-over, country. A wonderful place to attend school? You bet. An exciting place to teach? Check. How about running the school district? The challenges are about as daunting as trying to run down an elk above the tree line in deep snow. Just ask district superintendent Lauren Burch, an enterprising and savvy bear of a man who is equal parts educator, mountain man, and salesman. 

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