Old-style schools get new attention

Panel examines viability of regional learning centers

Posted: Friday, November 23, 2001

Former state Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer, could have talked about her bid to be Alaska's next lieutenant governor when she appeared before the Kenai Chamber of Commerce crowd Wednesday at lunch, but nary a word about her campaign was spoken.

Instead, Phillips talked about a study begun two years ago by the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee to examine the re-creation of boarding schools in Alaska.

"There's a lot of stigma attached to the term 'boarding school,' so we call them 'regional learning centers,'" she said. "It's just a fancy term for boarding school."

For decades in Alaska young people were forced to leave their homes when they reached high school age to attend regional boarding schools. Children from villages such as Tuntutuliak, New Stuyahok and Tyonek traveled to Bethel, Dillingham, Anchorage or even out of state for a high school education.

In September 1976, the state of Alaska reached agreement with the lawyers representing Emmonak teen-ager Molly Hootch, who sued the state to build high schools in the villages that already had elementary schools. About 127 schools were upgraded or constructed in subsequent years, ending the day of the boarding school.

Now, Phillips said, 110 village schools have six or less high school students.

"That's a sobering fact," she said.

"When you think about the opportunities your students have here, and look at the opportunities they have at schools with six or less students, you may need to look at things differently."

She praised some of the boarding schools run privately or by churches before the state took them over.

"There were excellent schools in Kwethluk, St. Mary's and Copper Center," she said. "They had very very high standards and the students came out with good educations."

She said that mostly went away when the state took over the boarding schools in the state.

"There were some abject failures after the state took over," she said. "The one bright star is Sheldon Jackson.

"They have 325 students and all of them are in accelerated classes. And they have discipline, which is why I think they do so well."

Phillips said the study the committee conducted was not reinventing the wheel. She said the committee started with the years of studies about reinstating boarding schools.

"First of all, we surveyed all the school districts in the state to see if there was any interest in a boarding school," she said. "There were 13 very serious about having sites around the state, so we went to each of them."

She said it was important that a regional learning center anywhere have the support of the community.

Seward and Seldovia were interested, Phillips said, adding they both gave excellent presentations.

"Seward said they would like to tie it into AVTEC," she said, of the Alaska Vocational Technical Center there.

She suggested that the regional learning centers could be magnet schools, specializing in academics or vocational skills, such as health care, mining, mechanics, cooking or cosmetology.

She said there would be open enrollment and students from across Alaska could choose which school to attend.

The high school in Nenana has jumped on the bandwagon and built a dormitory for its high school, which was in danger of closing due to low enrollment, she said.

"They've got kids from Southeast, Nome, Interior, all over going there," Phillips said.

She said one of the reasons the Nenana program works is because parents from the communities the students are from are brought in to be house parents in the dormitories.

She said boarding schools today would be much better than pre-1976, when few villages had telephones or regular air traffic.

"We've greatly improved transportation and telecommunication, and that will help with the distance and loneliness problems," she said.

She said by creating the regional learning centers, the state could save money and provide better funding for all school districts.

That was a sentiment of Kenai Mayor John Williams, who said that some areas have several school districts.

"If the Kenai Peninsula was Prince of Wales Island, we'd have five school districts, each with their own separate administration and buildings," he said.

Craig Fanning quizzed Phillips about how much the state could actually save with regional learning centers, since many of the school buildings in the bush host both elementary and high school students and share a lot of staff.

Phillips said the committee had not come up with hard numbers at this point, but noted that four schools would be closed completely if the high schoolers left. The state requires eight students of all grades attend a village school at the minimum. If it falls below that, it will be closed.

Fanning also asked if the parents and grandparents of today's students were concerned about the idea of restarting boarding schools, as many of them suffered under what Fanning called "the state's assimilation plan."

Phillips said parents the committee has talked to are mostly positive about the idea.

She said the program could be structured to serve 9th through 12th grade, or 10th through "14th" grade, where the two years after 12th grade would be college preparation.

"This is a good project," she said.

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