Anchorage Daily News


Every child in Alaska would have the opportunity to attend high school in his or her own community, under terms of a 1976 out-of-court legal settlement named after the young Eskimo girl for whom the lawsuit was filed. The result, in Bush communities throughout the state, has been a construction boom and educational scramble to make good on the promise. Daily News staffers and photographers toured the Bush and scoured Juneau to examine the changes "Molly Hootch" has wrought.
Bush Schools Cause Building Boom

By Jeanne Abbott
Daily News Reporter

First in series (September 13, 1980)
(Part 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 )

In the biggest construction boom since the trans-alaska pipeline, the state’s far-flung Bush regions are getting spanking new high schools for their village children—but the $133 million effort is getting decidedly mixed reviews.

Touted as the alternative to sending teenagers from Akiachak to Venetie off to boarding schools, the construction project was to bring full-scale public education to every receptive village.

The intention was to give Bush children the same educational advantages urban children always had known.

The project was planned to bring 126 new high school programs to within walking distance of Bush kids’ doors—more schools for rural Alaska than all the high schools in Wyoming, Nevada or Delaware.

And with a speed otherwise unknown in the nation, most of them have been built, staffed and opened in the last four years.

“It has happened over night, says Steve Cotton, an attorney who has represented Bush villages in their effort to secure local high schools, an effort known as “Molly Hootch” because of the young Eskimo girl who lent her name to the court settlement establishing the schools.

“We have seen a staggering increase of secondary schools in just a few short years.”

But along with the pleasures have come growing pains. Bush schools are under fire, and under pressure, from every corner.

Too much, too soon?

Creation of local high schools has brought a wealth of opportunities to teenagers who now can enjoy the stability of staying at home for their education. In the Kuskokwim village of Napaskiak, for instance, 25 students returned from boarding school in Bethel this year to find a well equipped, smoothly operating new high school with a full range of courses.

Many schools, particularly in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, are seeing a startling drain of potential high school students who have chosen to return to a Bureau of Indian Affairs School in Sitka. Because school budgets are based on student population, the defection has meant hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding lost to these schools.

In many cases, the resulting budget barely covers utilities and staff salaries.

Some districts face hostile relationships between an administration ground in strict or conventional urban structure, and a rural community that is proud of its own lifestyle and identity. One school was so torn apart by friction last year that parents pulled their children from school. As a result, four teachers transferred and only one remained for another year.

School superintendents generally are paid well for their efforts, with a low of $35,000 and an average of $50,000. But two make $72,000 and another earns $80,000 annually, plus bonus and first-class air travel, with a three-year contract. Yet in that district, parents from local schools have circulated petitions questioning his methods.

“Right now we do not have very much of a chance to give our ideas about the schools,” reads one petition. “We would like the district to listen to us when it decides what parts of the program are good and what parts should be changed. This is not happening now.”

The problem of centralized control was supposed to be eliminated when the State Operated School system was disbanded and replaced by the 21 regional districts with school boards. Yet the district offices for one remote region are still located in Anchorage “for ease of administration.”

Communities with eight or more high school students were given the choice in the Hootch decree of creating a school in the district or sending their children elsewhere. While decisions were made democratically, with consideration of uncertain transportation and communication in the villages, four high schools on Nelson Island were built within 10 miles of each other.

A report from the University of Alaska on rural high school programs, printed last year, addresses the subject of teacher burn-out, with an average of two to three complete turnovers of teaching staff during a four-year high school career.

A few teachers settle down for long tenures, but the most vulnerable to burn-out are those taxed by course loads and energy demands.

There is one teacher in the school at Newtok, for instance, who must conduct classes for four grades in six subjects to cover basic requirements. That means 24 class preparations each day.

Enrollment dictates the number of teachers, and in small schools a few teachers are required to stretch themselves to handle subjects outside their areas of expertise. Universities no longer prepare generalists for high school experiences, yet that is what bush education often requires.

Says education professor Howard Van Ness of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks: “The biggest problem here is coming up with a way of doing a small rural program, when teachers are prepared for an urban comprehensive high school that is modeled along an assembly line.”

Of course, many of these problems have cropped up since 1976, when the Molly Hootch consent decree was signed by Gov. Jay S. Hammond. “Growing pains,” educators called them.

At the time of statehood, the BIA operated schools for Alaska Natives—essentially elementary schools0—while the territorial legislature and Department of Education operated schools for non-Natives. Those who wanted a high school education were sent to Oklahoma or other Indian reservations.

In 1966, the state adopted a policy of constructing regional secondary schools and developing boarding programs in Anchorage, Bethel, Fairbanks, Kodiak, Nome and a few other villages.

A few years later, funds began to be appropriated to construct local secondary schools in unorganized boroughs. But before the Hootch case was resolved, some 2,783 secondary-school age children went to elementary school in 126 villages that did not have high schools. About 95 percent of those were Native.

The Hootch case settlement, filed to achieve more equitable treatment for the village children, was indeed a triumph over discrimination. It provided that every child of school age has the right to a public education in the local community where he resides.

According to attorney Cotton, the consent decree was talked about as a “$40 million settlement.”

Since 1976, however, the state has committed $133 million to fund renovation or construction of 126 bush high schools. In the tiniest villages that chose new programs, extra classrooms were added. In larger areas, schools with 12,000 feet or more of space have been constructed—with spacious gymnasiums, home ec and science rooms, art areas, kitchens, stainless steel fixtures, and comfortable furnishings.

Where there were 15 Bush high school programs in 1975, there were 70 by 1977, 80 by 1978, and 92 by 1979. More appeared this year.

In fiscal year 1980, the legislature gave rural districts $56.6 million of the $215 million dedicated to operating expenses through the so-called foundation formula (based on enrollment).

In FY 1981 the figures are $79 million for rural districts and $265 million statewide.

Whether quality has been achieved for dollars spent is a matter of future speculation; but whether the aches of the “growing pains” can be treated is a matter of present concern.

Monday: The BIA competes for students in Kwethluk.