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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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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.)

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