Compass: How about rural Alaska learning centers for all ages?

By CHANTELLE PENCEMay 6, 2013 

It seems like an impossible situation. I care about it though, so I look at it, and I want it to be solved. But it seems like a tangled web of expenses, expectations, and a fast moving engine on an exhausted American system. Education in rural Alaska is as old and dilapidated as many of the buildings in our communities. Many of the structures that were built back in the day were not made for the environment. It is the same with our schools. We don't seem to have the time or money to restructure the system. So we are boarding up windows and moving on.

Every year rural Alaska loses another school. The schools were built by a newly formed state that had money to develop, in the American way. But there are many aspects of America that were created under false assumptions. There are many aspects of our culture that are weak. The thing about rural Alaska is that it doesn't tolerate the weak. Basic survival takes a certain amount of upkeep. Our rural school systems couldn't keep up with the money and management that it takes to keep them going. But busing the kids out of their communities is not an ideal solution either.

It is a hard thing to put my young children on a bus, in the dark, at thirty below. They ride an hour and a half each way, arriving at the school tired. They sit on the bus. They sit at desks. They are a part of the school, but not exactly part of the community. Their home community is 50 miles away, and it seems so broken apart nowadays with our children going every which way.

I miss the gatherings at our local school, which closed due to system failure. Granted, the gatherings were more about loving than learning, but we really can't have one without the other. I can see how our rural community has broken down, with the imposition of mechanistic systems that are counterintuitive to natural systems. The idea of a big brother who takes care of everything is not as good as a real brother, or grandmother, or neighbor. No government system can take the place of real family and community -- relationships that are based on give and take.

What if our endangered schools became community learning centers, where people of all ages (K-college) could gather to learn via distance technology, and through home-school type classes supported by parent and community networks. What if the learning center had a staff that maintained the building and provided technical support, but were not the teachers? What if our community helpers and human service programs rented office space in the learning center, putting them in close proximity with the people they serve, also offsetting the cost of maintenance. What if?

My high school senior is piecing together his last year, with the support of a rural principal (in a neighboring community) who believes in his right to an education and graduation. His grandmother diligently tutored him through math; his father is teaching his "shop class"; He takes technology through a hub school. It is a patchwork quilt, a folk tradition indeed.

The rural principal who held the door open for my son is doing so on her own volition; it is not a method that is built in the system. If it were, our rural schools would have succeeded. We need to have different systems in place that sustain rural people. Alaska is the last chance we have to get it right, in a nation that is running on systems that were designed after other places. We live in a land that is rich with old traditions, many which hold solutions. If the state wants to maintain the old cultures of this place, it has to invest in the creation of compatible systems. What could be gained by empowering our rural places? What will be lost if we let them fade away?

Chantelle Pence lives in Chistochina with her husband and three sons, where she works as a consultant (Copper River Consulting) and plays as a writer.

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