Anchorage Daily News

The “Molly Hootch” decision has caused upheaval in rural Alaska education, giving Natives the opportunity to have high schools in their own villages.  The conclusion to the “Molly Hootch” series examines some of the effects the decision may have on Alaska in future years.

By John Greely

Daily News Reporter

Last (6th) in a series (September 19, 1980)
(Part 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 )

Last in series

Additional $133 million asked for bush schools

Commissioner of Education Marshall Lind flew to the Kuskokwim River delta late this week to help dedicate new high schools in two villages there.

For Lind, a former bush teacher now in his ninth year in the state Cabinet, the journey was a welcome chapter in a long saga that’s seen $133 million worth of local schools built in 126 rural communities during the last few years.

However, on his desk in Juneau, Lind left behind two documents offering solid proof the ‘Molly Hootch” story is far from over. They were:

Even these big-dollar items, however, wouldn’t close the books on “Molly Hootch.” The issues of self-determination raised first by federal, then state and now local control of education in Bush Alaska linger for all residents, urban and rural.

What happens, for example, if Hammond persuades the legislature to pick up 100 percent of urban school costs? Will state control increase, as well?

“I think that’s merely a perceptual problem,” Lind said in an interview this week. “That hasn’t been our history (in rural Alaska).”

Recent history, at lease since state-operated schools were disbanded in 1975, tends to back up the commissioner’s view. A broad range of responsibilities, from the selection of architects to design new schools to the hiring of teachers, have been turned over to local districts.

The result, an investigation by The Daily News shows, hasn’t been uniformly smooth.

In Napaskiak and Tooksook Bay, secondary schools opened within the last year have been successful, while those in Kwethluk and Aniak have not. The lessons learned in these four villages could serve as examples for both urban and rural educators, as the state pours more and more money into the classrooms.

Generally, it appears education has worked best in these villages where grassroots are strongest and the community has had an active role in deciding by whom and what its children are taught.

“A big part of the success of these schools,” Lind believes, “will hinge on local control and planning.”

A 1979 report by the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Alaska is more to the point.

“Whatever problems small high schools have, they will not be solved by simply tinkering with the list of courses to be taught.

“Fundamental structural, functional and organizational changes must be considered if high schools are to be effectively adapted to contemporary conditions in rural Alaska,” the report says.

That observation is directed primarily at the teacher, whose experience as a one-member faculty in the Bush often leads to “burn out” and early departure.

“We used to be a nation of one-teacher schools, but we’ve forgotten how,” says Howard Van Ness, professor of education at the University of Alaska. “We no longer train generalists, and we find teachers who are exhausted just keeping up.”

The university, Van Ness said, is trying to ease the problems of Bush educators sired on urban teaching methods but concedes “we have a long way to go.”

The absence of Natives among the ranks of superintendents, as well as in the classroom, also may figure into long-range solutions. States the UA report:

“Although it may be easier for the moment to purchase a pre-packaged curriculum from elsewhere than to develop a local curriculum design, experience indicates that such an approach will only prolong, rather than solve, the schools’ problems.”

Providing an education serving Bush students may even require pulling them away from home on occasion.

In the Kuspuk School District, for example, a $3.9 million vocational center is being built in Aniak to serve the seven small high schools of the area. Although such a move goes against the thrust of what “Molly Hootch” was all about, Aniak officials—beset by controversy chronicled in this series of articles—see the center as the only efficient way to offer a broader scope of education.

“We do need to have a great deal of latitude” in the aftermath of the state’s huge school construction effort, Lind says.

In general, problems of high administrative and construction costs, teacher turnover and confusion in the chain of command are not unique to the state’s newest school systems. One of the oldest, the UA and its far-flung branches, has been no less immune to growing pains.

In fact, the problems of both systems have become intimately tied together in Kotzebue.

At the same time school district officials are sparring with three neighboring villages over control of secondary education, the Northwest Arctic REAA is lobbying to take over Chukchi Community College from the university.

Sen. Frank Ferguson, D-Kotzebue, has spearheaded this battle, hoping to affiliate the school with Stanford University and merge the two-year-old college with a $6.2 million vocational-technical center funded this year by the legislature.

His aim, Ferguson said this week, was to develop local skills in the mining industry, one the NANA Regional Corp., hopes to establish on mineral deposits it owns in the area.

But, in the fight over Chukchi’s future, the college was closed this fall when a veto of money for the transfer to local hands left the campus without any operating funds.

“To me,” Ferguson said, “the college has been run as kind of a social program…I’ve gotten assurances from (UA President Jay) Barton that he will try to change the philosophy of the community colleges, but this takes too long.”

Such impatience about waiting for the state to act figured heavily into the Hootch lawsuit and the construction of 126 new schools. Eventually, as the case of Chukchi Community College, illustrates, the rebellion may spread to post-secondary education in the state, shaking the foundation of the university’s dozen community colleges.

Indeed, says Commissioner Lind, one of his top goals in the 1981 legislature session will be “working with the university about the role the department and the UA have in post-secondary education.”

For new rural high schools, such coordination maybe the first step toward writing the next chapter in the “Molly Hootch” saga—home-grown high schools followed by home-grown teachers and administrators from kindergarten to college.

“All of this has happened exceedingly fast, and we’ve had our problems, Lind says of the Hootch case. “But it has to be done, and considering all the responsibilities that have been laid out for them, the school boards have done a first-rate job.”

An aide to the commissioner, referring to a pamphlet from one rural school district, puts is another way.

“If you think education is expensive,” the pamphlet says, “just try ignorance.”