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Cutting class: Alaskan villages struggle to keep schools open

In 15 years, 32 schools have closed because they have fewer than 10 students.


Southeast Alaska's Tenakee Springs is a small village on a big island, hardly more than a fishing camp surrounded by a wilderness of forest and sea. There's no cell phone service, no paved roads and – on a good day –  maybe 100 residents. Jobs are scarce.

But Darius Mannino and his wife, Chris, fell in love with the place while on a kayaking trip in 1996 and stayed in the area for eight years. "It became the home of our hearts," Darius says. The couple eventually moved to Los Angeles for work, but when they had a daughter in 2010, they decided they wanted her to grow up in Tenakee.

Ila Wren Mannino is now 3, and the family is settled here. They own a bakery, participate in local government and live in a house with plumbing and electricity – a step up from their earlier years in a moss-chinked cabin, when they hauled water and read by oil lamp. But though the Manninos are committed to staying, there's no longer a school here for Ila to attend.

The $3 million building still stands, built in 1987 during a burst of optimism. But this August, the district locked its doors. Besides no preschool through 12th grade education, that means no place to hold town meetings or even community volleyball games in the winter. Seven people – including Darius Mannino, who worked as a teacher's assistant and janitor – lost their jobs. Their hardship sends ripples through a community this small. "It's not cheap to eat here as it is," Darius says. "If (people) have less money, they're less likely to come to the bakery."

The problem isn't unique to Tenakee. By state law, Alaskan schools with fewer than 10 students have their funding ratcheted down over a three-year period until they're eventually forced to close. Each October, the state completes its official headcount to determine which schools will continue to receive money. It's a tense time in small communities; if a single student drops out or one family moves away, everyone could suffer.

In the 15 years since the law was passed, 32 schools have permanently closed their doors. More teeter on the brink: Last year, 41 schools had fewer than 15 students. And with the majority of Alaskan communities accessible only by boat or plane, students who lose their schools can't just get bused to a neighboring town. Many turn to online correspondence courses, which will serve about 11,300 Alaskans this year, while others are sent to regional boarding schools. Some families simply move away.

"Closing a school is one of the death knells to a community," says Brad Allen, a superintendent who had to close the school in Red Devil in interior Alaska's Kuspuk School District three years ago. A school is often a town's largest employer as well as its largest user of electricity and shipper of freight through the local post office. Without its school, there's even been talk of Red Devil's commercial airstrip closing, Allen adds. "There are so many interconnected lines."

Nothing in rural Alaska is cheap, education included. Gas can reach $10 a gallon, and in the tiny village of Stony River, pop. 45, in the Kuspuk District, a 33-ounce box of cereal costs $14. The price of heating a school and paying a teacher a living wage to educate fewer students is largely why education in bush villages is more than twice as expensive as in urban areas. Last year, the five most urban Alaskan school districts received an average of $15,000 per student from local, state and federal sources. In the more rural parts of the state, the figure rose to $31,000. And in the remote Aleutian Islands, schools received more than $52,000 per student – nearly five times the national average.

Yet despite the funding, standardized test data suggest that rural schools still lag behind. Sixty-five percent of students in urban Alaska were rated as proficient in reading in 2011, while only 46 percent of rural students were. Urban students outperformed their rural counterparts by similar margins in writing and math.

Retired Republican State Sen. Gary Wilken, who was deeply involved in the 1998 reform that led to the 10-student mandate, thinks the data underscore a basic truth: Smaller schools simply aren't able to prepare students for college and careers the way larger schools can. They lack extracurricular activities, science labs and advanced instruction in subjects like physics, and teachers are often stretched across a range of grade levels.

Wilken says that online correspondence has proven more effective, both financially and educationally. Despite opposition by Democrats like Georgianna Lincoln – an Alaska Native whose hometown school was shuttered soon after the law went into effect – the bill passed the state House 29-11 and the Senate 11-9.

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."