Anchorage Daily News


Bush schools springing up since the 1976 Molly Hootch settlement might do well to notice what some programs—like the one at Tooksook Bay--do right. Here is a report.

By Jeanne Abbott

Daily News Reporter

Fourth in series (September 17, 1980)
(Part 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6)

TOOKSOOK BAY—The classrooms are nearly full at eight o’clock in the morning at Nelson Island Area High School, and the bell doesn’t ring for another hour.

When the attendance count is taken, there are no absences among the 80 students, grades seven to 12. When classes begin, there is no disruption.

During lunch, no student slips out the back door to roll a joint, and the lack of automobiles in this small village with rambling boardwalks makes cruising impossible.

The last time a burger with fries was ordered, it was on the menu in the high school lunchroom. The only time graffiti was seen on a bathroom stall, students started a campaign to denounce it, considering it an insult to the building.

There is something surrealistic about a high school where trouble almost never happens, where there aren’t any exceptions to the seemingly perfect behavior.

Astonishingly, the teachers and principal say there are no dropouts and no discipline problems.

“You know what’s a problem here?” asks vocational education teacher Joe Ostrowski, 27. “It’s when we’re having a silent reading period and I catch someone doing homework.”

The kids wear Nike shoes and tight Levis, but any other similarities with Anchorage or Fairbanks teenagers stop with the mail-order catalog. Tooksook Bay has a 100 percent Yup’ik Eskimo population and the young seem to fit into the same mukluks as their ancestors—who taught respect for elders as common law.

“The kids here are modest and shy, even innocent. They are 200 miles from the influences of Bethel, and 400 more from Anchorage. I think that’s very good,” says science teacher Doug Birch, who came from Minnesota to Tooksook four years ago. He has remained in the village more than twice as long as the average Bush teacher.

“I could not imagine a school like this if I weren’t here,” says 25-year-old teacher Tom Dolan. “The kids are attentive, courteous. In my old high school I’d watch 1,000 kids blow their noses during one period.”

Even though Tooksook Bay is one of Alaska’s most romantic outposts, a place where men still carve ivory with old hand tools and women weave baskets from tundra grass, the coastal village is not permanently stuck in the 19th century.

Nearly every home has a color television set, and most have expensive video-cassette players for Charles Bronson and Bruce Lee films.

The situation wasn’t always so exceptional, either. Five years ago a principal was fired for selling marijuana to students.

But the mild disposition of Tooksook Bay teenagers and the accomplishments of the Nelson Island Area High School program today, are the result of many factors that might serve as an example for successful education in the Bush:

A popular principal who came as a Catholic volunteer and is beginning his fifth year in the school;

Enthusiastic teachers who provide continuity by staying year after year;

A building that opened in 1975 and developed through the Molly Hootch settlement as a regional alternative to faraway boarding programs;

Courses that lean on local culture, particularly art, language, subsistence and environment, but teach basic skills for functioning in the modern world—like taking the women’s basketball team to Bethel and helping them order from a restaurant menu;

Parents who provide strong authority figures and keep discipline a family, rather than school, prerogative, and

Realistic expectations from the entire community.

“It’s possible to com here with romantic notions of being missionaries to these kids, but that doesn’t work,” says principal Jim Swartz. “What I hope to do is something good every day, helping children who really have no goals (and) no way to get ahead, become better people.

“I don’t know what an Eskimo person should be.”

Tooksook Bay is, Swartz says, “a good place to teach. We have enough staff to specialize and offer all classes needed for graduation fairly effortlessly.” Because of the language difficulties, Tooksook Bay students do not necessarily excel on achievement tests.

“Yet,” says Swartz, “they don’t have troubles in school. A number of them go to college, but the village is so family-centered, most come home because they miss the security.”

The makeup of Nelson Island High School has altered since the Molly Hootch decision of 1976, which gave children of school age the right to public education in their local communities.

Originally the school was built as a regional school, serving tiny island villages like Tununak, Nightmute, and Newtok. Each of those coastal settlements has since voted to build its own high school, even though each of those villages has fewer than 12 students and is within 10 miles of Tooksook Bay.

The wisdom of that decision has been questioned by administrators from the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel.

“In terms of economics, and in terms of program, there is no question it would have been better to continue with a consolidated school,” says assistant superintendent Bill Ferguson.

Yet, the attorney who fought to establish the rural high schools argues against the logic of unified programs for the Bush.

Says Steve Cotton: “Even if villages are close together as the raven flies, there is no feasible way to provide daily transportation. So, you’re faced with a boarding program and depriving these students of their family life.”

Thursday: a look at the administration of rural schools.