Anchorage Daily News


By Jeanne Abbott
Daily News Reporter

Second in series (September 15, 1980)
(Part 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6)

Kids Take Off –Away From New Schools   

Under terms of a 1976 out-of-court settlement called "Molly Hootch," each child in Alaska would be able to attend high school in his own community. Since the agreement, named after the Eskimo Girl for whom the lawsuit was files, villages throughout the state have received new high schools. Daily News staffers toured rural areas to examine the changes resulting since the decision.

KWETHLUK—A $3 million, first class high school equipped with the latest in athletic equipment, science labs and shop tools  opened here in August.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of the town’s 70 teenagers aren’t attending. They’ve shipped out to Mount Edgecumbe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs School in Sitka—a thousand miles away.

When parents sent their children for another year at boarding school, they carried on a long village tradition of depending on federal dollars to educate the young.

But the upshot for this community of 400 is a brand new, but nearly empty, high school, the biggest of the Molly Hootch high schools in the Kuskokwim Delta, built for 75 students. Only 20 enrolled this year.

“What a waste of taxpayer’s money,” says Bob McNeel, the schools’ principal-teacher.

“I’ve been a high school administrator in other states, and I know how painful it is to acquire these things. Here we have everything but the kids.”

It’s one case of dollars spent for a Bush high school construction program, and lost –at least for the first year. Kwethluk High School, built within shouting distance of every house in the village, is unable to function at the planned educational level.

Budget cuts make meeting fuel bills a pressing priority, and leave little money for daily operation.

Expensive equipment, just unpacked from the shipping crates, will languish for lack of staff.

There is no easy explanation for the mass defection of students to the BIA school.

Says village Agnes Michael: “They’ve never had a high school here, and some of the parents thought the kids wouldn’t get the same education they got at Edgecumbe.”

Adds neighbor Alex Nicori: “The district didn’t come out and express to parents what would be offered here. I’m sorry about all those kids taking off myself. To tell you the truth, I think the BIA teachers egged them on.”

Student preference was certainly a factor, but families also leaned to Edgecumbe when unfinished state schools remained locked during construction this summer, almost until opening day.

Families blame the Lower Kuskokwim School District for failing to promote its program, while the BIA teachers at the local elementary school sold students on Edgecumbe’s athletic and academic advantages.

An expanded social life in Sitka seems to have had its own appeal.

“My son Victor wanted to go to Edgecumbe, but I wanted him to go here,” says his mother, Alesia Nick, sitting at her kitchen table and looking at the village airstrip. “He was in band, wrestling. The coach pushed him to leave, and Victor worshipped him. So he went.”

Kwethluk isn’t the only village in Western Alaska to be tugged by competition between the new state-funded Bush high schools and the established BIA school. The Hootch settlement in 1976 required students in Alaska be give the right to have public education in their own communities, but many families were already well established at Edgecumbe.

In Tuntutuliak, a village at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River with $1.7 million of state funds invested in its new high school, 24 students went to Edgecumbe this year while 17 stayed home.

The neighboring Kuspuk School District, which links the upper Kuskoskwim River villages from Kalskag to Stony River, has also seen several of its students defect to Edgecumbe.

“It is really hurting us,” says superintendent Robert McHenry. “If the federal government is going to take our kids at Edgecumbe, we should be reimbursed.”

In Kwethluk, a budget of $500,000 was chopped to $140,000 because of the lost enrollment. From that, $60,000 will be dedicated to hearting oil and another $40,000 to electricity, fixed costs, like salaries, eat up the rest.

Instead of six teachers, the student population warranted only two with assignments to cover six subjects for each of four grades.

Originally, the school was built on a wave of Hootch-case enthusiasm and expensively equipped on the faith that students would indeed attend.

Kwethluk High is a “dream school,” says McNeel, a veteran administrator whose aggravation with the situation is close to the surface.

“I’ve been a high school administrator in other states, and I know how painful it is to acquire these things. I’ve been where schools are in existence for 100 years that don’t have this kind of equipment.”

Seven Kenmore zig-zag sewing machines, still in their shipping covers, have not been touched. Lack of a shop teacher keeps a Craftsman drill press and radial saw behind closed doors.

Two basketball score clocks unused, are stored near the full-sized gymnasium.

“We have $5,000 worth of gymnastics equipment here,” says McNeel pointing to a pair of uneven parallel bars and a stack of custom-made floor mats.

“Even large AA schools don’t get custom mats,” he says.

“This is a fully-equipped high school in the first year, not in the 5th year. You know what? Many villages felt a high school in Kwethluk could not provide, but if we had the teachers we could do just about anything here.

“The building is big enough, but the staff just isn’t.”

Two teachers were recruited to cover the entire academic territory: English, reading, math, science, physical education, home economics, basketball, wrestling, and vocational education.

McNeel triples as principal, social studies and science teacher and English-math teacher Tom Litecky does most of the rest. They also coach sports, while a local woman teaches in the bilingual program.

Teachers’ wives have been drafted to fill in the gaps—everything from cooking lunch to supervising the cheerleading squad.

McNeel, at 37, claims he is too old for the job. “Don’t take me as a good example,” he warns. “Most young administrators can work 14 hours a day teaching, doing the budget, the discipline, hiring people, filling out paperwork. But me, I find it very stressful.

“Don’t get me wrong. The people in the village are great, the kids are outstanding, but the circumstances are mind-boggling. I’m just too old for this.”

Litecky is more gung-ho. Fresh out of the University of Minnesota; he brought a pregnant wife and a dog team to Kwethluk during the summer. There was no housing, so they lived in a trailer without utilities until they could move into the school’s home ec room.

“I kind of like it here. My wife, now, you’ll have to ask her. I see myself as adaptable, without any presuppositions about the Bush. I didn’t feel like babysitting white kids, and the ones I have are attentive, decent and genuinely interested in learning.”

No one feels as uncomfortable about the state of affairs in Kwethluk than the school district administrator in Bethel.

“Kwethluk never seemed that excited about a new high school for some reason,” says administrator aide Susan Murphy. “They were content with Edgecumbe and honestly convinced that their kids wouldn’t get a good education in this high school. Now we’re in a revolving door—to get the curriculum you have to have the kids.”

School superintendent Carl Peterson says “In retrospect, we should have gone out to the communities like Kwethluk to work with the parents about the curriculum, to tell them about our activities. It’s a Catch-22. To get program you have to have money, to get money you have to get students.”

The district is planning to seek state subsidies to pay some fuel costs. “It’s the only way we can afford to operate at this point, says Peterson.

At Kwethluk and other hard-pressed schools, portions of school buildings will be closed at low temperatures to conserve heat energy.

And, of course, they’re all hoping the local kids will elect to return home promptly—if Edgecumbe isn’t forced by financial problems to close first, an eventually that was announced only last week.

Next: Hostility in a hot-spot—Aniak High School.