Unique problems of bush schools require special attention

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

To most central peninsula residents, the thought of a school implies a suburban facility with hundreds of students, dozens of staff members and an array of extracurricular activities.

But the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District also has tiny rural schools with no road access, no broadband Internet access and no varsity teams -- in other words, bush schools. And like their counterparts elsewhere in Alaska, they face serious challenges to giving students top-notch educations.

The movement for more accountability from schools is pushing their problems to the forefront. The problems stem from a complex mix of interrelated issues including isolation, small size, staffing difficulties, social problems, school funding and test score disparities among ethnic groups.

Every school has its own personality and its own strengths and weaknesses. In small schools, individuals and events can make huge differences.

Susan B. English Principal-Teacher Steve Jones, in Seldovia, has served in other remote Alaska schools. In his view, bush schools get the scraps and hand-me-downs of the state's education resources.

He considers that a fact of life, even on the Kenai.

"When I first came here, it was real obvious to me that this district is a microcosm of the state," he said. "Anywhere else in Alaska, it would be five or six districts. ...

"The district is so large and so diverse ... that the attention seems to focus where there are the most students and the biggest constituency," he said.

Problems of scale

A casual glance at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District operating budget suggests that the district spends about $8,000 per pupil. But in reality that money is distributed unevenly. For example, at Hope, the district's smallest school, five employees and a $2 million building serve 11 students.

Despite the high costs, the bush students get less than their cheaper counterparts at bigger schools: fewer supplies, fewer course offerings and fewer activities.

In Port Graham, the community decided to send juniors and seniors to board out of town in bigger schools. Most of those students end up in Soldotna.

Principal-Teacher Wayne Young said lack of travel money and having only underclassmen hampers the kinds of activities that often bring community members into school. For example, although the kids love volleyball, the school and families cannot afford the liability insurance and plane tickets to take them out to compete.

"You are looking at $100 bucks a pop per kid," he said.

Instead, the school athletics focus on the Native Youth Olympics, where teens compete as individuals and only travel once a year. But even then, it is hard for them to win against older competitors.

"It's a real frustration for parents out there," he said.

Emilie Swenning is the chief in Nanwalek and the mother of five students ranging from preschoolers to a high school senior. The lack of electives and programs in the village bothers older students, she said.

"That is why some of them have left," she said.

Families have gone to Anchorage, other peninsula towns or, in some cases, boarded teens in Soldotna.

In the little schools, numbers make a huge difference. Cutting back a teaching position is painful for any school, but when each person is a major chunk of the staff, shrinkage can be heartbreaking.

Susan B. English School knows the problem well. As Seldovia has shrunk over the years, so has the school. The community has watched programs fall away, and some families have sent their children away to get the courses they wanted.

Jones said once the school enrollment dipped below 100 students it became difficult to maintain a complete program. His school is dwindling toward what he called critical mass, and he sends out flyers to North Slope workers trying to recruit families with children to move to the community.

"It has been 10 years since there were over 100 kids in the school here," he said.

Consolidation means teachers must cover multiple subjects for multiple grades. Teachers find themselves with classes where every students is working on something different and progressing at a different speed.

"There is really no way around it. You start to compromise the quality when you lump the kids together," Jones said.

"Kids receive instruction out of sequence."

Proposing solutions

Despite the difficulties, the three south peninsula schools have found causes for optimism.

Jones said he attributes Seldovia's sterling test performance to teachers who set high expectations, active community involvement and talented students.

"We've got some good partnerships going on for the benefit of the kids. Both the (Seldovia Village) Tribe and the Boys and Girls Club are real active in that," he said.

"Schools reflect the priorities of their communities, and communities should get the schools they deserve."

Exceptional, motivated students keep the classroom standards high. Over the past decade, Susan B. English grads have gone into some of the nation's top colleges, and last year's valedictorian scored an 800 on the math SAT.

Transfer students have come in with lower skills, but they tend to rise to match the high performance around them.

"As long as they are pulled up, I am content with that," Jones said.

In Port Graham, Young calls the community the most progressive he has ever worked with, and he praised its leaders as talented and supportive of education.

In Nanwalek, Glenn said the most stable staff in years is allowing the school to help the neediest students.

He cited one case of a special education student who, when tutored by a specialist, showed dramatic learning gains.

He and Swenning both noted an increased awareness in the village of the importance of higher education.

"I think we are going to see a trend of increasing education among the populace. They are starting to see more of the value of what an education can do for them," he said.

Continuity has opened lines of communication.

"You have to build trust over time," he said.

"I can go to anybody's house, and they would invite me in. They know I am going to look out for their kids' best interests."

Making the grade

How the state's Quality Schools Initiative will fit into their future is a topic of growing suspense and some skepticism, at least in Nanwalek and Port Graham. The principal-teachers questioned the state's one-size-fits-all approach.

Swenning, too, expressed doubts.

"Personally, I think (the mandated tests) are a pain. All it is doing is backfiring and punishing the kids. ...

"I think it needs more work. They meant well. But it wasn't thought out well," she said.

Swenning favors a grass-roots approach to education, focusing on the natural resources around the village.

"There is so much that could be taught or explored," she said.

"People in the village need to become teachers."

Young said he worries about fallout from the school designator classifications.

"When they implement it, I think it is going to generate more controversy," he said. "It really isn't a fair standard."

Glenn posed a hypothetical case.

Imagine that you are on a small plane that crashes in the Alaska wilderness. You and a high school senior are the only survivors and have to face the elements. Would you rather be with a student who mastered the state exams or one who devoted time to mastering traditional hunting and gathering techniques?

"Do I feel the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam is important?" he asked.

He left the question dangling:

"In relation to what?"

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