Few Alaskans realize the Molly Hootch argument failed in court.
``It's a myth,'' says Chris Cooke, the lawyer who filed the class-action suit in 1972 through Alaska Legal Services. ``In court, we lost it.''
Judges never agreed with Cooke's argument that the state was discriminating against Alaska's Native students and denying their constitutional right to an education.
``In effect, the state was saying, `Yes, you have the right to a free education, but you can only get it if you leave home and go someplace else,''' Cooke says.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge James Singleton Jr. rejected the argument that
the state should pay for rural students to attend high school at home. Alaska
Services, which employed Cooke, appealed the decision, and in 1975 the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling.
Still, Cooke and his colleagues had one more chance. The Supreme Court sent
one new point_involving the equal rights of Native children_down to Superior
to be argued.
But as the state was on the brink of winning, it quit fighting.
With promises of oil riches on the horizon, state Education Commissioner Marshall
Lind saw no reason to block what seemed to be a basic right for village
students. Gov. Jay Hammond agreed.
``The state was coming into money,'' Lind remembers. ``So as we were working
toward a system that would allow students to remain in their home villages,
was some money to do that.''
Meanwhile, Emmonak villagers delivered a copy of a documentary film entitled
``William Trader: The Children Leave for School,'' to the state Legislature.
Lawmakers watched the film, which shows elders saddened by teens forced to leave for boarding school.
``They were moved,'' says Bruce Twomley, an Alaska Legal Services lawyer who
took over the case in 1975 when Cooke left for private practice. ``Sufficiently
moved that they appropriated the capital funds to provide a high school for Emmonak very promptly.''
But Emmonak's success did not aid villages elsewhere. With that, Molly Hootch's
name was removed from the case as plaintiff and the name of Anna Tobeluk, of
Nunapitchuk, was substituted.
Hootch's name remains connected with the court-approved settlement that became
the biggest education legislation in Alaska. The state promised to offer a
school program in every village that desired one, and had both a grade school and at least one high school-aged student.
``It was beyond our wildest dreams,'' says Cooke, who has a private practice in Bethel.
With statewide voter approval, the state went on to spend nearly $150 million
by 1984 building new high schools in such remote places as the rocky cliffs
Diomede Island on the Alaska-Russia border in the Bering Sea. Of the 126 communities named in the settlement, 120 opted for high school programs. In 1989, a
judge ruled the state had fulfilled its obligation under the settlement, and terminated it.
Cooke still exchanges Christmas cards with the young girl whose name he borrowed
in the pursuit of bettering rural education. Hootch, now 39, married Alvin
Hymes, a state Fish and Game biologist, and moved to Bemidji, Minn. They have two boys in public school.
Cooke didn't just draw Hootch's name from a hat when he decided back in 1972 to take on the case. ``I thought it had a certain ring to it.''
It had emotional connections, too. Commissioner Lind knew Hootch personally
from when he and his wife taught school in Emmonak in the 1960s. His wife even
had her in class.
``She was a very charming young student,'' Lind remembers. ``Always had a smile, and very pleasant.''
Regardless of the suit's name, Lind agreed with Cooke's argument for equal
education. The commissioner and governor urged the state attorney general to
saying there had to be a better way to teach rural high school students. The settlement never benefited Hootch herself. She didn't even finish high school.
In 10th grade, her father pulled her out of boarding school to come home and
help raise her six brothers and sisters. Her mother left after she divorced
Hootch, feeling sorry for friends who didn't adjust to boarding school, signed
a petition asking the state to provide a local high school. Emmonak villagers
heard of Cooke's success with an earlier lawsuit that won a high school correspondence program for the Chukchi Sea community of Kivalina.
Yet when the state started a high school program in Emmonak, Hootch was too
busy with family duties to attend. Years later, she earned a General Educational
Development diploma, the equivalent of high school credentials.
``It was exciting,'' she remembers. ``A lot of people know my name. A lot
of people thought I was a fictitious person.''
"On the Edge: Do Bush Schools Measure Up?"
By Wendy Hower and Kristan Kelly, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Part One, Sunday, January 21, 1996
BETTLES_Snow swirls around Bettles Field School in the Popsicle-blue light of a winter dawn.
Eight students sit at desks pushed into a circle, taking turns reading aloud
from a novel. The other three classrooms are empty except for desks, chairs,
boxes of books and a few computers.
All is quiet in the adjoining library, where 16-year-old Solomon Yatlin hunches
in a cubicle wearing headphones and listening to the movie soundtrack ``Strange
Days'' on a mini compact-disc player. The Athabaskan boy fidgets as he labors through a geometry lesson in his textbook.
Solomon is the only high school student in what really should be a one-room schoolhouse.
``I'd rather go someplace bigger with a basketball team,'' Solomon says, looking
up from his book. ``It's too hard just working like this, I don't know, by
The Yukon-Koyukuk School District is spending $19,094 this year to teach Solomon.
The same is being spent on each of his eight classmates who started the
Yet hundreds of millions of dollars after a landmark court settlement 20 years
ago did away with mandatory boarding schools and put students like Solomon
village high schools, most graduates are ill-prepared for college and life. A diploma from a Bush school doesn't equal one from an urban campus.
The cost of Bush education is extreme and the obstacles are many. Outsiders
unfamiliar with Native ways lead the classrooms. Social problems_alcoholism,
abuse, domestic violence_keep some students from learning. When students do succeed, graduating from high school or college, they find few jobs waiting in their
Critics are taking note.
As the governor and Legislature wrestle with a budget shortfall, the decline
in Alaska's mainstay oil industry, and education spending that outpaces inflation,
high schools are under more scrutiny than ever. Lawmakers wonder: Are Bush schools making the grade?
``It's a waste of resources that are in short supply for the education of
all Alaska children,'' says Sen. Rick Halford, a Republican from Chugiak and
in the state Senate.
Bush schools, which teach a quarter of the state's 120,000 school-age children,
received close to half of the $668 million the state is spending on kindergarten
through 12th-grade education this year.
Statewide, education costs about $8,700 per student, but in the Bush that jumps to $13,500.
Legislators know the high cost of living in the Bush makes education there
more costly than in urban schools. Still, Halford and other lawmakers worry
excess. The Aleutian island of Atka, for example, the farthest-west school district in the United States, will spend $32,783 on each of its 21 students this year.
``There are areas in the state where it costs more educating a third-grader
than it does to send a kid to Harvard,'' says Anchorage Republican Con Bunde,
co-chairman of the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee.
Alaska's far-flung system of village high schools is the legacy of Molly Hootch, a 15-year-old Eskimo girl from the Bering Sea village of Emmonak.
Until 1976, most high-schoolers were put on a plane and sent to a government-run
or private boarding school in Alaska or out of state. Others were sent to
boarding homes and attended public schools in cities or larger villages. Emmonak parent William Trader, in an early 1970s documentary film, described the
sadness of his daughter leaving for boarding school.
``If I happened to die suddenly or had heart attack or something,'' Trader
says, ``and she heard about me in school and she rushed home ... I don't know
gonna feel if she saw me lying down and covered with a white sheet and she can't ask me no questions.''
Villages and families were forced apart.
``The communities were systematically being dismantled. That was what the
(boarding) schools were doing,'' says linguist Michael Krauss, director of
Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Moreover, boarding schools were cheating most students academically. A 1973 study by UAF
researcher Judith Kleinfeld found that nearly 55 percent of village students dropped out of boarding school or hopped from one to another. Almost 70 percent of
the students in the study misbehaved, abused alcohol, or were homesick.
The students' plight touched attorney Chris Cooke. Living in the Southwest
village of Bethel, he watched boarding school dropouts return home and miss
out on an
``Once they got home,'' he says, ``they were forgotten by the system.'' Emmonak
villagers circulated a petition, signed by young Hootch and her classmates,
for a local high school that would preserve family life, Native language and culture. Martin Moore, the area's Democratic state representative, asked Cooke to visit
Emmonak. A well-attended village meeting resulted in the lawsuit brought by Cooke.
In a court-supervised settlement in 1976, the state Department of Education
agreed to build a high school for every community that had an elementary school
least one secondary student.
Never again would children be forced to leave their parents for state-run
boarding schools or city boarding homes. The Hootch settlement_backed by nearly
million of fast-flowing oil money_paid for school buildings within walking distance of nearly every rural high school student in Alaska. ``It allowed families to
stay intact,'' says Clara Johnson, the Athabaskan director of UAF's Interior-Aleutians campus. ``It also allowed communities to have more say in high schools.''
Alaska has 210 rural high schools, usually the dominant structures in villages
with no running water, paved streets, restaurants, movie theaters or cars.
fewer than 100 students.
Their 49 school districts are scattered from the tundra coast of the Arctic
Ocean through the river villages of the Interior, across the Southwest muskeg,
along the rocky Aleutians. They are in the southeast rain forests of the Panhandle.
The three largest rural districts, all in the Interior, encompass 208,848
square miles_an area larger than California. High school basketball players
Carhartt overalls and crowd aboard small airplanes just to play a game at the nearest school, hundreds of miles away.
The labs and libraries of these village schools are stocked with laser karaoke
players, electric microscopes, and CD-ROM computers linked to the Internet,
in by airplane.
Teachers, who usually run multi-grade classes of fewer than 15 students, often
come from non-Native communities outside Alaska. Non-teaching superintendents
earn more than the governor.
Students who live too far from villages also receive the benefits of public
school. Teachers make regular visits, carrying computers and textbooks to remote
schools by way of skiplane and dog sled.
In a few villages, the system erected around the Molly Hootch settlement works
well. Experts point to islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity_high schools
excel one year and flounder the next as teachers come and go.
UAF's Kleinfeld has observed a curriculum rivaling ``a fine private school''
in some schools, and the monotony of ``endless worksheets marching across students'
desks'' in others.
Most schools report no dropouts, near-perfect attendance and the promotion of all students to the next grade.
But by most academic standards, Molly Hootch schools fail.
Tenth-graders in central Alaska's Yukon Flats School District, for example,
rank at the 31st percentile nationally for math and the 32nd percentile nationally
written expression on standardized tests. Scores lower than the 50th percentile are below the national average.
By comparison, Fairbanks 10th-graders place in about the 60th percentile nationally for both written expression and math.
In college, many graduates of Bush high schools can't keep up. About 30 percent
of the University of Alaska's new student enrollment last year came from rural
communities. Yet rural students accounted for more than half the students in college remedial courses.
As for dropouts, the university does not keep track of how many rural students
stay after freshman year. But in 1986 a UAF researcher pegged the dropout rate
And while the Molly Hootch schools have made progress in preserving Native
culture, as they were created to do, the result is unsatisfactory for many:
loss of language and way of life has simply been slowed, not reversed. Native leaders complain that few children can communicate with their elders_despite
expensive bilingual programs.
Professor Oscar Kawagley, a Yupik Eskimo with a doctorate in social and education
studies at UAF, has his reasons for the high schools' failure. One teacher
do it all. And students are not exposed to enough art, music, Native culture or high-level math in rural schools.
``There are a few that are working, but there are many others that really
fail the rural students,'' Kawagley says of the rural schools. ``We shortchange
Before giving the graduation speech at Minto High School last May, Georgianna
Lincoln, the Athabaskan Democratic state senator from Rampart, sits outside
the dirt. Her long black hair sweeps her lap as she turns her sunglasses onto the dappled blue marsh waters of Minto Flats. Up the road, a friend is cooking up a
springtime delicacy_duck soup.
She can almost taste it.
But her mood darkens as she talks about the future of Minto High School and other Molly Hootch schools.
A growing number of legislators want to save money by sending more Bush students
to Mount Edgecumbe boarding school and consolidating small village high
schools. It's a bad idea, she says.
``I want those senators to sit here,'' she says, gesturing toward the ground.
``People are so tied to this land that it's hard to explain to someone.'' New
rustle, dogs bark, an old truck rumbles in the distance. Cabin doors, as usual, are open in welcome.
``You can't get the traditional Native foods in Safeway,'' she says. ``Where could you get this family feeling in Fairbanks?''
And yet, Lincoln is one of the harshest critics of Molly Hootch schools. Graduates
of these small schools are ill-equipped for either village life or the Western
mainstream, she says. ``I don't think we've prepared them to do anything.'' School officials argue it's unfair to measure Bush schools by test scores, the standard
measuring stick for urban schools. The scores lag because the tests are culturally biased against Natives, they say. A pupil in the Yukon River village of Tanana, for
example, might be hard-pressed to comprehend a word problem about street curbs or dialing 911 in an emergency.
Yukon-Koyukuk district officials say village children don't come to school
as well prepared as their urban counterparts. Kindergartners rank in about
percentile nationally on standardized tests. By the time they reach senior year, they've improved to about the 50th percentile nationally. Other Bush school districts
report similar gains but remain below the national average.
In Fairbanks, students start out at the 60th percentile nationally and maintain that average through high school.
A 1991 study by Kleinfeld and others for the Alaska Educational Research Association
says standardized tests are a fair measure of Bush schools. High schools
are supposed to be teaching general knowledge and academic skills of mainstream society.
``These are skills important to balancing a checkbook, doing well in college,
working effectively in a business or agency or reading a newspaper with
understanding,'' the report reads.
Back in Bettles, Solomon Yatlin pulls off his earphones and joins his eight
classmates in the main classroom. Florence Nictune, a respected 65-year-old
come on one of her regular visits to teach Inupiaq culture. Sun streams through the windows as Solomon twists a wooden shuttle through loops and knots of
sea-green twine. A fish net springs from his hands and trails on the floor at his feet.
Nictune looks on approvingly, her face serene in a blue gingham kerchief. The other students crowd around Solomon's chair.
``Pull it tight,'' Solomon explains to 8-year-old Naomi Wright. ``Then throw it over the rope.''
Grownups call it ``peer teaching,'' a tool that sometimes holds Solomon's
interest in his preteen classmates. Boredom and lack of friends are his frequent
complaints at school.
Still, he plans to graduate next year and follow his four older siblings from
Bettles Field School to college. One sister is studying business at the University
Tulsa, a brother is majoring in computer science at UAF, another sister studies fashion design at American College in Los Angeles and a third sister earned an
associate's degree in sociology and works summers for the National Park Service.
``Of course I will,'' he says. ``Everyone else in my family has gone to college.''