The Magazine

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. 

The name of the game is keeping up student counts. The stakes are high. Any school with fewer than 10 students loses its funding. Count only 9 students and your funding is $0. Bang, you’re closed. That’s the law in Alaska. Close the school and the community dies with it. The politics are nasty. The strategies are mean-spirited. The government incentives are perverse.

Below are just some of the issues Burch deals with daily. They may sound bizarre but are just part of the rhythm of educational life among the declining populations of rural Alaska.

Poaching—and not of black bears. A neighboring school district runs a bus into the seaside community of Hollis, where Burch has a small school. They steal his kids. It’s legal. Burch doesn’t like it, but he’s no dummy; he now sends a bus into that district to woo kids for his own school.

Cash bribes. A competing school district bribes parents with cold hard cash. Well, actually, they pay a generous mileage reimbursement to parents who will transport Burch’s students to their school. In reality, the parents already have jobs in the other communities. By hauling their kids with them on the way to work, these enterprising parents can pocket as much as $275 a week to cover travel costs that they would incur anyway. Clever, if sleazy.

Incentives for students to fail. In Alaska, state and federal funding is directed at failing, mediocre, or otherwise troubled schools. Burch’s district has exceptional academic results. Teachers here joke that the only way to keep their district on the right financial track is to insist that students put down the wrong answers on statewide tests. To get additional resources in Alaska, schools must first fail.

Burch’s district—with its modest $5.5 million budget—is testimony to the fact that schools can be quite successful without throwing money at them. Bureaucrats in the nation’s capital ought to take note. The Department of Education and the National Education Association might learn a bit about quality schools by looking at the good things that happen when students, parents, teachers, and a whole community get behind every school. The formula is simple. Education matters. No student can fail here; they’d be letting down all 63 people in town.

“Some kids need a teacher also to be their mom,” says Julie Vasquez, who’s taught in the district for six years. “Whatever it takes, we do it.” Indeed, Vasquez has had students move in—for a while, at least—with her husband and six kids when they needed more home support. Some students shower at school because there’s no hot water at home. Still, these are tiny communities and a few find it stifling. “There’s lots of gossip in Naukati and I can’t wait to get out of here,” says 15-year-old Elizabeth Arrington.

The telephone bribe. Keep in mind that many of Burch’s parents live off the grid. They are fishermen, loggers, trappers, and the like. Correspondence programs that rely heavily on the Internet abound in Alaska. These quality programs help those in the bush. But they are now being misused to siphon kids away from functioning schools. To wit, these distance-learning programs today offer—for free!—laptop computers, Internet connections, even phones to folks who otherwise could never afford such items.

Burch lost funding for Port Protection School one year when one of his less-than-well-heeled parents got all these high-tech gadgets for his float-house simply by pulling his kids out of school. Oh yeah, many people here live year-round on floating houses or fishing boats. That’s how things go in a district where some 60 percent of students live below the poverty line. Burch’s district nicely deflates the canard that poverty is the root cause of educational dysfunction.

Competition from the state of Alaska. At a time when rural communities are shrinking and educators are scraping together pennies to keep schools open, the state of Alaska has established a huge boarding school with some 400 students. Why? No one is entirely sure. It certainly cannot help Burch’s cause that so-called urban politicians control the Alaska legislature. The attitude seems to be: Small rural schools are just too darn expensive; if these progeny of Alaska’s bearded, wacky frontiersmen want an education, they should move to the city like the rest of us sane, sophisticated folks. (What sort of folks prefer the bush? Burch’s district is 87 percent white and 9 percent Alaskan native, with some odds and ends thrown in.)

Pay teachers not to teach. Burch must count his students every year in October to try to reach the magic number of 10 per school. If he is short, the state cuts off funding—for that same school year, which still has eight months to go. That makes it hard on the 9 remaining students. Meanwhile, Alaska law requires Burch to pay the teacher anyway, even if the school is shuttered. “If we count 9 students in October,” explains Burch, “I have the dysfunctional privilege of forking out a total salary, benefits, and housing package of $100,000 for the teacher, and then have to explain to the bewildered parents of the remaining 9 students that they aren’t entitled to this teacher as I’ll have to move him to a different school.”

Talk about dysfunctional: Burch is forced to spend far more time fretting over student counts than textbooks, curriculum, faculty, and core educational issues.

• Incentives to hire bad teachers. To find quality staff, Burch must hire teachers in January for the following academic year. But he often doesn’t know in January if he will get funded for the following year. That means he must gamble with the students’ futures. Burch can hire a first-rate teacher in January but then run the risk of the school being shut down. Or he can wait until summer and, if the school is a go, at the last minute try to hire one from the teaching dregs nobody else wanted. Neither option is a good one.

Of course, the resourceful folks at the Southeast Island School District have adapted to these perverse incentives. They invest in kayaks and mountain bikes. They have wonderful outdoor leadership programs. They do lengthy educational camping trips. They build trails and cabins. They find independent teachers who love the outdoors. How to compete in sports when they cannot even field a soccer team, much less get to another school? No problem. The district has won numerous state championships in archery. (Until the national level, archery meets can be held without travel.) The volleyball team has been known to hitch a ride with a passing fishing vessel to get to an off-island game.

Burch is always selling. “We concentrate on what we do well,” he says. “We are able to give individualized instruction with astoundingly low ratios of adults to kids of about 1:3. We have a wonderful place to raise children. We don’t have gangs, fights, detention rooms, vandalism, intimidation, or kids afraid to use the bathroom during the school day. We don’t have fences, metal detectors, or police in the schools. Yes, the sighting of a buck during hunting season has been known to empty a classroom.

“But parents here can have an impact on the education of their children,” Burch continues. “I like to think it’s because we care, but it’s also because we understand that we’re a service provider in a competitive market. It’s still a hard slog. Basically and perhaps quite reasonably, nobody much knows we’re here.” Well, at least now, a few more may know.

Willy Stern has written for The Weekly Standard from Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Mali, among other places.

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