Still, Wilken admits that no one wants to see a school close. "There's heartstrings attached to it," he says. "But I don't think you (should) provide an inferior education just so you can say you have a school."
Elsewhere in the country, minimum enrollment laws are rare. In rural Big Horn County, Mont., Superintendent Al Peterson has kept the Spring Creek School open for as few as three students. The size doesn't matter as much as the teacher's dedication, he says, and in Montana, if a school drops below nine students, it receives a greater portion of its funding from the state.
The Spring Creek School in Decker, Mont., now has six students, and teacher Creighton Teter says that despite the challenge of working in a place where the daily bus route covers 160 miles, the one-on-one interaction with his students is worth it.
"It's the way teaching should be," he says. "I get to know my students and … (tailor) my teaching to what their interests are, so they're having fun and learning and covering the standards in very creative and functional ways." Plus, he notes proudly, his students consistently score higher on standardized tests than those at the district's larger schools.
Though rural Alaska has high rates of poverty and unemployment, life in a subsistence community provides its own kind of education, a unique benefit of keeping rural kids in rural schools.
"When we're in Stony (River), our culture and tradition influence us," says 15-year-old Elizabeth Willis. "It's home. If we were to go off to a city or boarding school, we won't be able to go out and go moose hunting. Our grandmothers and families wouldn't be there to teach us about our culture."
Elizabeth and her five classmates at the Gusty Michael School live on an island in the Kuskokwim River, deep in the Alaskan interior. Their teacher, Debi Rubera, helps run the village's only store to fund field trips for the students, some of whom had never seen the ocean, ridden in a car or eaten at a restaurant. "The difference in the kids once they've seen those things is amazing," Rubera says. Students work at the store after school, then use the profits to fund travel to places like California and Washington, D.C.
This year, however, when low enrollment threatened to close their school, the kids voted to give up their travel money to keep it open. They donated $8,000 upfront, plus $1,000 a month toward utilities. It doesn't fully cover Gusty Michael's operating budget, but it was enough to convince the school board to keep the school open.
The village is optimistic that enrollment will rise in coming years, but if it doesn't, the school could be forced to close, and Elizabeth's family would likely move. Rural Alaska's population has been shrinking steadily since 1990, and the exodus has recently snowballed: Twice as many people left rural villages between 2000 and 2008 than in the 1990s. Southeast logging communities and Southwest fishing villages have been hit especially hard, but with fuel costs high and jobs scarce in rural districts statewide, demographers expect the trend to continue.
Many families head for the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, on the outskirts of Anchorage. The school district there has gained 4,000 students in the last decade – the equivalent of one new school per year – and is the only district in Alaska that's growing steadily. Superintendent Deena Paramo estimates that of the 350 new students who enrolled this year alone, roughly a third emigrated from rural villages. Many struggle with the cultural transition of leaving their homes and moving to a large school in an urban setting, but Paramo agrees that the 10-student mandate is necessary: "There have to be forced choices for the greater good of Alaska."
In Tenakee Springs, Darius Mannino watches from the window of his bakery as the days grow shorter and, one by one, summer residents leave town. The harbor is nearly empty of boats, the gardens have been covered with seaweed and the bushes stripped of berries. The next eight months will be telling: If Tenakee can boost enrollment, its school will reopen. If not, it could close permanently.
Mannino and other residents have done everything they can think of to recruit families to town – advertising on Craigslist, seeking school accreditation, creating a foreign exchange program – but convincing young parents to move to an island with no school and an uncertain future is tough. Still, the Manninos are hopeful. Sitting at the kitchen table at night after Ila's gone to sleep, they imagine a couple just like them, stuck in traffic somewhere in Los Angeles, dreaming of life in a place like Tenakee Springs.
"There just haven't been a lot of families who have found their way (here)," Darius says. "It's not for everyone, but someone might want to take a leap like we did."