Anchorage Daily News


Aniak: Urban Methods Lead To Strife

Education in the Bush got a big boost with the 1976 “Molly Hootch” settlement, guaranteeing every student a high school in his or her own community. But all has mot been sweet.  Some schools have faced urban strife in a rural setting.

By Jeanne Abbott
Daily News Reporter

Third in series (September 16, 1980)
(Part 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6)

ANIAK—This upper Kuskoskwim River town has had a local high school for eight years, one sophisticated enough to educate students in French and flight training, and send nearly one-third of its graduates off to college.

But last year, townspeople say, Aniak High School operated in a war zone.

“I’m not blaming anyone in particular, but nobody had control in the classroom,” remembers Mayor Joe Matter, Aniak’s shopkeeper and a father of two teenagers.

“Students were pushing teachers around, the administration wouldn’t reprimand them, and parents were ready to pull their kids out of school. If it were me, I would have started firing from the top. We pay top dollar for education and that’s what we get,” Matter says.

The village of Aniak (population 360) is the transportation hub of the middle Yukon-Kuskokwim valley, site of a recently closed FAA station but still a thriving community of air taxi operators and public employees.

This year Aniak has 26 students. Local athletic squads are called the “Half-breeds,” which is not a slur here, but an accepted tag for the 65 percent of the people who are Eskimo-Caucasian mix.

If you listen closely, you’ll hear people saying that the school administration didn’t understand Aniak.

People speak a pattern of administrative snafus, with a principal that depended on strict, urban methods to cope with the town’s informal, Bush standards.

Aniak High School may illustrate how important flexibility and adaptable style is to the rural high schools.

Grassroots participation obviously is important to tight-knit communities.

“There is a problem when an administrator used to central control of a system finds a different perspective in the community,” says Mick Murphy of the University of Alaska’s rural orientation program for teachers, EXCEED.

A 1979 UA report on small high schools from the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies in Fairbanks makes the point: “Persons available…are themselves products of a conventional high school and have had no training to prepare them for developing unconventional programs. Their natural tendency, when thrown into an unfamiliar setting, is to recreate that with which they are familiar—presto, a standard comprehensive high school.

“Consequently, after a year or two of agonizing over why it’s not working the way it did back home, they move on to a more comfortable setting, and new recruits are brought in to start the process over again.”

The report continues: “A small high school must grow out of the local situation and involve local people in its operation to the maximum extent possible, if it is to achieve any significant degree of long-term effectiveness.”

In Aniak, widespread reports from parents and teachers indicate that morale was crushingly low last year. Among the staff, only the English teacher returned this year, reluctantly, while four others transferred.

“My problems were with the administration,” says Bobette Bush, the one teacher who elected to remain for her fifth year despite her disturbing experience.

I found there was no job security, no enforcement of attendance rules, very little discipline and no support from the top. It was so bad here that I called the state troopers in December to apprise them of the situation, to let them know what was going on.”

An administration that apparently catered to the stars on the basketball team divided students and allowed some to gain the upper hand in the classroom. When push came to shove, Aniak parents say, it was the kids with the muscle who prevailed.

Says Margaret Demandel, a parent of three high school students: “There was a big emphasis on sports and the basketball team got special treatment. We were told about teachers being threatened by the district office.

“Finally I took my children out of school to protest the bickering. For the first time, my kids did not want to go to school.”

While he’s hesitant to “reopen old wounds,” the superintendent of the Kuspuk School District does object to the attacks on the administration.

Bob McHenry, who supervises seven Kuskokwim River high schools from Kalskag (with 35 students) to Stony River (with 13), says Principal Henry Balliet was a “convenient target for parents and teachers having personality conflicts.”

McHenry is an Oklahoman who keeps a Confederate flag tacked to the wall of his office, and was a principal in the villages of Stebbins and Gambell before moving to Aniak. His own fence was painted in graffiti during last year’s fracas, and he does not seem eager to rehash the problems.

“I hate to bring up old wounds, especially when Aniak is the only school in the district with any of these difficulties,” he says. “It was a matter of youngsters and teachers having conflicts, with parents becoming involved. It’s a tough job over there. The community itself is made up of individuals who are not always constructively interested in education.”

Retracing the situation, it appears that the principal was hired by the superintendent after a career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Nome area.

Whether he misunderstood the lifestyle in Aniak, or not, the Oklahoma-bred Balliet reportedly ran the high school according to his particular plan. That included attention to dress code and the basketball team.

He lasted one troubled year, and then was promoted to a higher district position.

“He had a rather colonial approach,” says one teacher.

The principal who replaced Balliet has different ideas. Lamont Albertson, a bearded ex-teacher who has spent 11 years in Aniak and is given to wool plaid shirts for work, says success in Bush education means being part of the community.

“You have to understand where the families are coming from. Some people come up here cold, in my opinion. They expect to run the schools along traditional urban models.”

When he hires, Albertson says he looks for teachers “who won’t impose their educational views but accept the kids.”

One of Albertson’s new teachers, 34-year-old Rudy Bailey, came to Alaska this summer and claims he’ll stay here “until I die.”

The son of an Oklahoma farmer, Aniak’s science teacher says village schools have “an edge” over their city cousins.

“I spend more time in preparation, but I have a smaller class load. If we’re studying, say, animal mitosis, I can take an entire class to the library, sit on the floor and really get into it. Individualized instruction, that’s what we have here.”

Albertson hopes his style and his new crew will turn the school around. Mayor Joe Matter hopes so, too: “We just didn’t need an administrator here who was clannish, who didn’t mix. The kids don’t respect that.”

Wednesday: Tooksook Bay—what makes a rural high school successful?