Thursday, November 26, 2009

7284: Alaska Schools Not Making The Grade.

From The New York Times…

Alaska’s Rural Schools Fight Off Extinction

By William Yardley

NIKOLSKI, Alaska — This distant dot in the Aleutian Islands needed just 10 students for its school to dodge a fatal cut from the state budget. It reached across Alaska and beyond but could find only nine.

Built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1939, the little Nikolski School will not be the last in Alaska to close. Four others have closed this fall and at least 30 more are at risk because of dwindling enrollment; one school in remote southeast Alaska survived only by advertising on Craigslist for families with school-aged children.
“We lose one or two every year,” said Eddy Jeans, the director of school finance for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

As Alaska celebrates its 50th anniversary of statehood amid new political prominence and urban aspirations, it is confronting a legacy of loss in rural communities that are unlike any others in the United States.

Some of these communities, like Nikolski, are linked to the earliest human settlements in North America, yet are now buckling beneath the accumulated conflict of old versus new. Alaska Natives are increasingly leaving villages for cities. Young women, in particular, have departed, and birth rates, once disproportionately higher in villages, have dropped. Jobs for the young people who remain are declining. Village elders have fewer peers who share their dialects. Heating fuel, gasoline and groceries can be expensive and medical services minimal.

The annual statewide student counting period, completed last month, is a census of the exodus. After several decades of growth, the overall rural population has declined about 4 percent since 2000 and much more in many regions. In the Aleutians, the population is down 19 percent, to about 4,500. About 20 percent of Alaska’s 680,000 people live in rural areas.

Rural school districts, desperate to make the cut, are known to move students between schools to prop up enrollment during the counting period, while some have sought out families willing to relocate from other states.

“We were desperate,” said Gordon Chew, whose wife runs the school in Tenakee Springs, where two families with a total of six children relocated earlier this year in response to an advertisement on Craigslist. “That saved us.” The decline of rural schools is at the heart of a broader debate in Alaska over the treatment of native communities, which dominate the state’s rural population.

Here in the Aleutians, native Unangans, or Aleuts, are linked to people who traveled the Bering land bridge from Asia more than 10,000 years ago. They survived off the sea, making skiffs from seal skin and building houses from sod for shelter against the endless ocean gales. They endured violence and religious conversion by Russian explorers and, during World War II, forced evacuation by the American military.
Now they face budget cuts and the pressures of modern Alaska.

“If you put it in the calculus we use today to determine public policy, places like Nikolski probably have a difficult time measuring up,” said Byron Mallott, a Tlingit leader who has advised several Alaska governors on native issues. “But look at Nikolski in the context of Alaska, look at it in the context of America. These are the native homelands, and we ought to recognize that and not forget that.”

Read the full story here.

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