ON THE KOYUKUK RIVER_Visiting teacher Sarah Drew's tongue puckers as she bites
into a cube of pickled beaver tail.
Across the octagonal log cabin, 14-year-old Sterling DeWilde downloads a new computer game about algebra. It's early
spring on the river. Outside in the snow is a pile of frozen beaver guts left from Sterling's successful trap. It's his own lesson
``I don't know how to use a desk,'' he says, boasting. ``That's why I hate public school.''
The nearest school building is 65 miles away. Drew, a certified teacher who
works for the Yukon-Koyukuk School District,
flies in by skiplane six times a year to check Sterling's studies. Sterling is the last of 14 DeWilde children whose teachers
were brought in at state expense.
The state's catering to remote home schools goes beyond requirements of the
Molly Hootch settlement, which in 1976 ended
the mandatory boarding school program for Native high school students. When families choose a secluded, backwoods
lifestyle, their children still have access to state-funded textbooks, computers, microscopes and other supplies common in
regular classrooms. Statewide, about 3,000 kindergarten through 12th-graders are enrolled in correspondence, or
home-school, programs. Some are signed up with school districts, others participate in the state's central correspondence
The Yukon-Koyukuk School District spends nearly $250,000 a year on Sterling
and 40 other students in its correspondence
program. That works out to less than half the per-student cost in the district's regular classrooms.
``It's a good deal for the parents,'' says Superintendent Glenn Olson.
But since the service is not required by the Hootch settlement, Olson may
dip into the correspondence school budget to
offset increases in the district's administrative costs.
Correspondence programs also take resources, and students, from schools that are already small.
Bettles Field School in the Brooks Range, for example, could close next year
if its enrollment drops below its current nine
students. The future might look better if two boys in town had not enrolled in a correspondence program.
The father of one of the boys wants his 10-year-old to have a Christian education.
The other boy's mother pulled her son,
who is now 16, out of school in fourth grade because there were no special education services for his hearing impairment
and learning disorder.
Lloyd and Amelia DeWilde, nowhere near a school, chose their distant home
to raise their children far from cars, restaurants
and telephone lines. Lloyd moved to the Bush to escape California. Amelia, an Athabaskan born and raised along the river,
was used to the lifestyle.
``In town, I'm not really alive,'' Lloyd explains. ``It's like everything
is black and white. Out here, everything's in
At their homestead, Amelia taught Sterling_and his 13 brothers and sisters
before him_how to count. Lloyd taught them how
``He's teaching white man way, I'm teaching Indian way,'' Amelia says. ``These children have best of both worlds.''
But they agree it's not enough. That's why they relied on correspondence school_to
show the children that someone in the
outside world took an interest, Lloyd says. ``It gives them motivation and makes them value what they are doing.''
Two of Sterling's sisters are attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
One brother earned a doctorate degree in
engineering at University of California Berkeley. And one sister earned an associate's degree in secretarial science at UAF.
She and two other sisters are successful at selling beadwork.
Sterling, the last child at home, plays in a nearby creek to learn about dams.
He shovels silt, creating a sand bar to attract
geese. He looks for a certain mountain to find his way back to the cabin.
Lloyd takes Sterling canoeing to teach him how to link the size of leaves
with animal hunting seasons. ``If (leaves) get so big
you can't hunt this, you can't hunt that.''
Amelia teaches Sterling how to read the weather. Sun dogs_the twin rainbows
that sometimes flank the sun_or rings around
the moon mean cold temperatures. A black cloud presages snow, a streak in the clouds up high means wind below. ``You
always have to be prepared,'' Amelia says. ``We always teach our children_that's science.''
"On the Edge: Do Bush Schools Measure Up?"
By Wendy Hower and Kristan Kelly, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Part Three
GALENA_No paved roads or water lines exist in this predominantly Athabaskan town of 600 on a north bank of the Yukon
Yet each high school student carries a laptop computer home from school each
day for two hours of homework. When the
basketball team travels, players use modems to transmit their completed homework and retrieve the next day's assignments.
Neighbors will soon use the school's network to e-mail each other from their cabins.
``As we move into the 21st century, the students aren't handicapped by education
provided in rural schools,'' said Galena
Superintendent Carl Knudsen. ``Through technology we have really neat opportunities the students wouldn't have in urban
Multi-million dollar schools like Galena's dominate the tundra, riverbanks
and shorelines of rural Alaska. The
system_teachers, buildings, computers_that sprang from the Molly Hootch settlement of 1976 is enormous.
Dozens of school district administrations serve handfuls of students in a
rural education system that costs Alaska nearly
$300 million a year.
The simple act of supplying the schools with pencils, textbooks and even teachers
is costly. Nearly all supplies are flown in
since most villages are off the road system. Each month, school boards charter small planes for meetings at a different
And as subarctic weather wears on these 20-year-old buildings, maintenance and repair expenses rise.
Meanwhile, Alaska's main source of paying for those schools_oil production_
is drying up, causing the governor and some
lawmakers to consider reshaping Bush education.
``We simply don't have the money to keep so many rural schools open,'' says
Anchorage Republican Con Bunde. The
co-chairman of the House committee on education favors merging some of them.
``Every dollar that the state spends in small rural schools,'' he says, ``deprives
Native students, the majority of whom live in
Anchorage or Fairbanks.''
Oil taxes and royalties fuel 79 percent of the state budget_including school
bills. This year, because of the decline in
production, the state has a projected deficit of $444 million. To cope with it, Gov. Tony Knowles wants to dip into the state's
constitutional budget reserve and slice $40 million from next year's budget.
Knowles wants to keep classroom funding at this year's level, yet he's worried
about the state's long-term ability to finance
school construction and repairs. Educators complain that school funding has not kept up with inflation. Still, the education
budget swells every year, with student enrollment and teacher salary increases.
Something is wrong with the system, says Rep. Mark Hanley, chief budget writer
for the Republican-controlled Alaska
House of Representatives. Hanley and other lawmakers are scrutinizing the Molly Hootch settlement.
``They're rethinking whether that was even a good idea,'' he says. ``This is not an efficient way to do business.''
Bush districts carry a hefty price tag. While the statewide average for one
year of a student's education is $8,700, it costs
$13,500 in rural areas.
What baffles educators is that the state continues to pay out nearly $1,000
a year to every qualified resident, including
children, through the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program. The money comes from earnings of the $17 billion fund, a
savings account amassed from oil profits.
The state Constitution prohibits spending any of the fund's principal, but
the Legislature decides how to spend the earnings.
Because voters count on their yearly checks, legislators are loathe to touch the dividend.
Efforts to cap the payouts and designate a portion of the earnings for education
have never won legislative approval. Former
Gov. Steve Cowper thought establishing an educational endowment in 1990 would provide a long-term solution, protecting
schools from a budget crunch he said was sure to come when the oil industry waned.
``It wasn't hard to see unless a miracle took place,'' Cowper says of the financial crisis.
Educators still think schools deserve financial protection.
``It's a crime in the richest state in the richest country in the world,''
says Yukon-Koyukuk Superintendent Glenn Olson, who
earns $85,000 annually. ``Alaska's turning into not only the richest state but the most selfish state.''
Some, like former state Education Commissioner Marshall Lind, say Alaska is
long overdue for a revival of the state's
income tax, last paid in 1980, and a sales tax. Tourists, who feed the state's third-largest industry pay no state sales tax.
``There has to be a way for more contribution from the individuals of this state,'' Lind says. ``We really are spoiled. We're
going to be in a sorry state of affairs if we don't support our educational system."
Galena, a single-school district in the middle of a larger district, is a
dazzling example of the options available to the
two-dozen Bush schools that operate independently at the wish of residents and with the help of their taxes.
Yet other districts aren't as fortunate. The state's system of support for
rural education fractures funding into inequitable
parts. Most big multi-school districts, like the 64,000-square-mile Yukon-Koyukuk that surrounds Galena, scramble to fund
the basics. The district brings together 599 students from 10 surrounding villages along the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers.
In nearby Nulato, of the Yukon-Koyukuk, students use the back of a book as
a table while waiting for a computer in the
writing lab. The school can't afford a hot lunch program. Just hours before the basketball team was to fly off for a recent
game, the principal juggled budget numbers to pay their fare.
For rural communities like Galena that opt for single-site status and choose
to help out through local taxes, the money can
make a visible difference.
Galena's 550 residents, for example, will contribute about $25,000 in sales
taxes and $211,000 in such in-kind donations as
snow removal, road maintenance and utilities this school year. The resulting school budget, including outside grants, works
out to $16,629 for each of Galena's 161 students. That's more than double what their counterparts receive in Fairbanks city
Nearby communities in the Yukon-Koyukuk district don't have such control.
The district is one of 20 Regional Educational
Attendance Areas dependent on state funding, based on a complicated foundation formula. REAAs also receive a portion of
federal funds for Alaska Native corporation-owned lands. This so-called ``impact aid'' is given to the state in lieu of borough
property taxes. The state turns around and plugs that money into the foundation formula.
Galena's wealth lured Superintendent Knudsen_and his 28 pairs of cowboy boots_from
Montana. New this year, Knudsen
earns his $81,000 salary writing grants for the 161 students here.
``Look at this!'' he says, showing off his 1.2-gigabyte workstation and accompanying
laptop with built-in compact disc
Recently he decoded a student's e-mail message written to him in Egyptian
hieroglyphics. The software, he explains with a
grin, can translate English into more than a dozen languages.
Knudsen sits at the helm of Galena's jaunt through cyberspace. He has a secretary
and leaves discipline to the principal. This
fall, Knudsen was working on three grants to bring federal and state money into Galena's classrooms. So far, the cash hasn't
helped raise Galena's standardized test scores. Tenth-graders score in the 38th percentile nationally in math and the 24th
percentile nationally in written expression, far below the national average of the 50th percentile.
In the surrounding Yukon-Koyukuk district, which spends nearly $600 less per
student, test scores are higher. Its
10th-graders rank at the 41st percentile nationally for written expression and the 51st percentile nationally for math on
Knudsen's pursuit of grants is a luxury that multiple-school superintendents envy and some legislators deplore.
``It's nice to have such freedom and independence at someone else's expense,''
said Anchorage Republican Terry Martin, one
of the state Legislature's most conservative and tenured members. Martin chairs the House Legislative Budget and Audit
Becoming an independent school district is the best way to get more money
into the school district, he agrees. ``It has
nothing to do with serving the kids better.'' With the majority of superintendents' salaries exceeding $80,000, the state
squanders its money, Martin argues. Superintendents make easy money writing grants for a small number of students. By
combining school districts, he says, ``You can have a grant writer for a school district of 1,000 kids instead of a grant writer
for 300 students.''
Martin would like to whittle the state's 54 districts down to 17_one for each
major urban area and one for the area of each
Native regional corporation. Under Martin's plan, for example, districts falling within Doyon Ltd.'s boundaries_excluding
urban areas_would merge into one school district. Thus, the Galena, Yukon-Koyukuk, Delta, Nenana, Tanana and Yukon
Flats districts would become one, excluding Fairbanks.
The savings in this 91,000 square-mile megadistrict would be approximately
$492,000 in superintendents' salaries alone if it
paid one superintendent $80,000. ``Plus all the 30 percent benefits,'' Martin says.
Martin points to a 1992 legislative audit that found the state could save
$5.3 million a year in school administrative costs by
consolidating districts. When two school districts merge, the combined district would save 5 percent in operating costs,
according to the audit.
But the savings would not be worth the loss of local control of schools, the audit found.
Indeed, Martin's combined district would have 3,099 students_one-sixth the
head count of the Fairbanks school district.
Geographically, it would be one of the nation's largest.
Martin disagrees local control would suffer. This legislative session, he
hopes to revitalize his old bill for consolidation. He
blames past failures on two superintendent lobbying groups and their two full-time lobbyists.
``The major block is the superintendents are absolutely opposed to it,'' Martin
says. ``Because they've got a system that is
very lucrative for their personal benefit."
``Swimmers, take your mark, get set, go!''
The teacher's voice cuts through the thick, dewy air. Seventeen third-graders
splash into Hoonah City Schools' 25-yard
indoor swimming pool on a November morning. This Southeast island school spends about $75,000 to run the pool, shared
with the predominantly Tlingit community of 1,000.
In another wing of the building, a laser camera jiggles like a pair of binoculars
from the neck of a high school journalism
student prowling for yearbook photos. An advanced biochemistry student sits before her computer, peeking under the
Earth's crust with a software program called ``Sim Earth.''
Across the hall, a telephone interrupts the Advanced English class. In this
school of 268 students, every classroom has its
own telephone. Push-button doors swoosh open for wheelchairs. Students sand gun cabinets and doll houses in the wood
shop; others rebuild a 1972 Chevy pickup in the automotive shop.
In the elementary school wing, kindergartners learn to count on 25 personal
computers in the newly upgraded lab. A pair of
earphones sandwiches each head as the children click and beep through different programs.
``That is good, Carissa!'' the computer voice drones, as 5-year-old Carissa
Mills chooses two equal groups of shapes on the
The wealth of technology and supplies at Hoonah City School District is telling
of its status as a single-site district. The
island's inhabitants, mostly loggers and fishermen, devote 1 percent of the 4 percent local sales tax to the school. Last year
that amounted to about $97,000.
That's typical of Southeast Alaska. Seventeen separate school districts are
clustered among the tiny, spruce-choked isles that
make up the 450-mile strip called the Panhandle. On Prince of Wales Island, three school districts with three autonomous
superintendents sit within 25 road-linked miles of one another. The three schools serve about 680 students.
Hundreds of miles northwest, on the Seward Peninsula, the schools of Brevig
Mission and Teller face each other like castles
across a calm bay. The schools are a 10-minute snowmachine or boat ride apart. One has 16 high school students, the other
Both schools would be easy targets for consolidation, a suggestion by Chugiak
Republican Rick Halford, majority leader in
the state Senate. Taking Martin's ideas one step further, Halford targets the actual buildings, not just district boundaries. He
complains of too many schools and too little money.
``It's a failure to the common population of the state,'' he says, ``because the cost is high.''
Mandatory boarding schools didn't work, he says, but neither do schools in
every village. Kids suffer at tiny schools, he
says, despite low pupil-teacher ratios. They choose from a sparse array of classes and miss out on competition. Too few
teachers offer too limited expertise.
``We ended up swinging the pendulum so far away from the regional schools
that we again have a failure,'' Halford says.
``It's not just an economic issue. The quality of education isn't there, either.''
There are geographical limits to consolidation of schools. Some villages are
just too isolated. And even combining small
schools_say, Teller and Brevig Mission_would not beef up their curriculum much.
Yet voters should not look to Halford for the politically controversial move to consolidate.
``Over time the lack of dollars will put a natural pressure for consolidation
on smaller communities,'' he says. ``If it's going
to be successful, it has to come from them.''
Gov. Knowles looks to local decision-makers for solutions. ``The answers to
Fort Yukon aren't going to come out of
Juneau,'' Knowles says.
No matter what the expense, Native parents say their children have the right
to an education at home. Eleanor Yatlin, an
Athabaskan mother of six in Bettles and a regional school board member, argues that the high cost of education is
unavoidable in places where a gallon of milk fetches $6.
``You can't ask people to up and move to the cities,'' she says.
Children need their grandparents, their culture and their land_education should not be the price they pay for it, she says.
``They have as much right as anybody else to get an education.''