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Desperate to keep their school, Stony River students raising thousands of dollars

Five schools closed this year in rural Alaska for lack of enrollment, but one on the verge of closure, in the village of Stony River, is surviving on receipts from student-run store, an effort the superintendent calls "heroic." Alex DeMarban photo

A student shortage led to the shutdown of four rural Alaska schools this year -- the most in a decade -- but a handful of gutsy kids in a fifth village refused to let their school die. They've agreed to contribute $18,000 to help keep it afloat, using money collected mostly from ice cream sales at the student store.

The six students, ranging from the fifth to 10th grade at the Gusty Michael School in Stony River, are "heroic," said Brad Allen, Kuspuk School District superintendent.

"It's pretty phenomenal to see kids wanting to pay to keep their school open when you have so many places in the U.S. where the kids don't care about the school or are not willing to fight for it. It's definitely a welcome change," Allen said.

The store, operated out of an empty teacher-housing unit because the school building closed last year, is the only place to buy food in the community of 40 that lies west of Anchorage across the Alaska Range. Students, who also attend classes in the housing unit, sell everything from ice cream sandwiches, the most popular treat, to staples like bread and milk.

Enrollment slips under 10-student minimum

Store receipts -- plus donations -- had in recent years helped students travel thousands of miles to southern California and Washington, D.C., to visit places never seen by most of them, including zoos, museums, and urban universities.  

The California excursion made minor celebrities out of the kids and their passionate teacher, Debi Rubera, as reporters witnessed them experience everything from kiwi fruit to ocean sunsets with wide-eyed amazement.  

But last fall, the school was on the verge of closing because enrollment had slipped below the 10-student minimum required to receive full state operational funding.

The Legislature in 1999 established that threshold to reduce the high costs of education in the frigid Far North, where schools pay ginormous sums to heat and electrify buildings, ship in supplies and import teachers.

Since that law passed, 31 schools have closed as rural communities shrunk and families with kids have left town, often seeking better opportunities elsewhere.  

Lacking enough students to stay open this past school year were Danger Bay School in Kodiak, Clarks Point School in the Bristol Bay region, Nelson Lagoon School on the Alaska Peninsula and Pitkas Point School on the lower Yukon River, according to the Department of Education.

Accelerating closures?

The state has seen one or two rural schools close yearly since 1999, but you'd have to go back to 2003, when six schools shut their doors, to find so many closures in a single year.

The Kuspuk School District based in the village of Aniak along the middle Kuskowkim River has seen it’s enrollment shrink dramatically -- dropping by more than a third, from 500 to 320 students, in 14 years, according to Allen.

Families might be leaving because of the high price of heating fuel and gas or too few jobs, Allen said. "People practice subsistence livelihoods, but you still need gas for boats and snowmachines."

Gas in the village runs $7.38 a gallon, more than double the national average of $3.56. And heating fuel can run thousands of dollars a year per household.

Those items are expected to become more expensive in the coming weeks, once the frozen Kuskowkim River melts and the river barge arrives with the year's supply of fuel.

"It's a downward spiral," Allen said. As more students leave, the district loses more state income, and more teachers and support positions must be cut, leading to more families leaving, said Allen. The district plans to eliminate five teaching positions next year, leaving just 30.

Because the Gusty Michael School was below the 10-student minimum last fall, the district lost $30,000 in state operational funds. It expects to lose about $60,000 this coming school year and $90,000 next year. To make up the difference, the district has trimmed expenses at other schools in five other communities, including by implementing a district-wide pay freeze, said Allen.

"We're trying to do what we can to keep things going," he said.  

The Kuspuk district hasn't had a school shut down since Red Devil closed in 2010.

Anticipating preschoolers' arrival

The students in Stony River -- Beth Willis and Nels, Eric, Tyrel, Michael and Nacole Gusty -- hope to make sure they're not next, said their teacher, Debi Rubera.

At the school board meeting on Wednesday, the Stony River students pleaded for another year of support from the district. The hope is that if the school can stay alive two more years, a batch of preschoolers will eventually push enrollment to 10 or more. If the school closes, people fear it will be permanent because several families will leave at once.

"I want it to stay open because it's where we learn and where we live," said Michael Gusty, a seventh grader. "It's really important because if we didn't have it people would be leaving (the village)."

At the meeting, the students told the board they would immediately donate $8,000 from the store, money they'd hoped to use for their next excursion Outside, said Rubera. They also committed to providing $1,000 a month next school year.

"They said if we don't have a school, we won't travel anyway," said Rubera.

When rural communities lose their schools, students might attend correspondence schools or travel far from home to attend statewide boarding schools such as Mt. Edgecumbe in Southeast Alaska or the Galena Interior Learning Academy in the Interior. Often, too, families pack up and move, heading to bigger cities such as Bethel, Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Rubera's doing her part to keep the Gusty Michael School open. This year, the longtime teacher has served as everything from janitor to cook to teacher aide. The only thing Rubera doesn't do is maintenance because she doesn't know how. Local handymen volunteer for that, because the person who used to fix electrical and plumbing problems is gone as well.

"It has been a massive community effort to keep this school open," she said.

Motivated by the students’ commitment, the school board agreed to dig into the district's pockets another year. And Rubera, who has a home in Oregon and one year before retirement, has promised to stay in Stony River until the school is back up to 10 students.

"I've never been in a school where kids took the money they earned to travel and handed it over," she said. "It's inspiring to see kids that are working this hard and doing everything they can to keep their school open."  

Postscript: It appears at least one more rural school will close in the coming year. APRN reported that the Copper Center School, about 140 miles northeast of Anchorage, will shut down because of low enrollment.  

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com