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Dwindling students mean four more rural Alaska schools will close

Alex DeMarban
Students Nacole Gusty, left, and Elizabeth Willis prepare pizzas to help raise money for a trip to Washington, D.C.
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Brittany Bobby, 11, and teacher Debi Rubera look at animals they might see at the national zoo in D.C.
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Tyrel Gusty, 12, in the store created at the school gym -- the only store one in town -- to help students raise funds for Outside field trips. Basics, such as flour, sugar and spaghetti sauce, are commonly sold, as well as snacks.
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Michael Gusty, 11, and Nels Gusty, riding in a toboggan behind a snowmachine.
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An icon in the Russian Orthodox church.
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Aerial photo of Stony River. The school is visible at the left.
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Stony River's Gusty Michael students identify spots on a world map in the lower grades (pre-kindergarten to seventh grade) classrooms.
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Mary Bobby and Nacole Gusty, both 9th graders, working on a computer.
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Eric Gusty, 11, perfects his lettering in a thank you letter the students are sending to donors.
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Eric Gusty, left, and Tyrel Gusty, answer questions as the planning begins for a school field trip to Washington, D.C., some 3,500 miles away.
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Tyrel Gusty, 12, hauling bags of trash to the bin down the road.
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Playing a video game in the home of their uppa, or grandfather.
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The Gusty Michael school might have to shut down, because it may not have enough students to trigger state funding next year.
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Teacher Debi Rubera works with Tiffany Willis, a pre-kindergarten student. To her left is Brittany Bobby, 11.
Alex DeMarban photo

Another four schools in rural Alaska have become the latest casualties of shrinking villages: Their doors will shut next school year, though one will hobble along by holding class in teacher housing. 

School shutdowns have become a fact of life across much of rural Alaska, as families move to larger communities seeking jobs and cheaper living. Twenty-seven schools have closed since the Legislature passed a 1999 law reducing operational funds to districts when schools fall to nine students or fewer. 

Many say the closures spark a domino effect that leads to more families leaving and more services ending, including local health care, regular flights and regular mail delivery.

"It's a downward spiraling spin," said Justine Gundersen in the village of Nelson Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula, where salmon-fishing income has plummeted.

The Aleutians East Borough School District board decided on Wednesday to shutter the school in the village of 45, where six students attended, Gundersen said.

The closure means the health aide will move somewhere else -- she has a child who needs schooling -- leaving the village without a clinic. And Gundersen's son and daughter in law, with their three kids, will move to Anchorage.

"We fought so hard to keep it open," she said of the school.

The three other schools closing this year are also in Southwest Alaska, in Pitkas Point on the lower Yukon River, Clark's Point in Bristol Bay and in Stony River deep up the Kuskokwim River.

For Stony River, a village of less than 50, the Kuskpuk School District decided this week on a closing-lite plan.

The student population will fall to five next year because a family with several children is moving away, said Brad Allen, superintendent.  The school will be padlocked -- meaning no more gym nights and no more access to the shop room. And the teaching staff will shrink from two to one, leaving open an apartment in teacher housing where classes will be held, he said.

The school expects to lose $120,000 in state support when the school doors close, he said. State officials could not verify that amount on Friday. What will actually be lost won't be known until the student count at the end of October, said Eric Fry, spokesman with the state education department.

Students in Stony became minor celebrities in southern California last year, where they took a mammoth field trip after raising funds through donations and by selling groceries out of the school gym at the only store in town. They recently raised money for another mammoth field trip -- this one to Washington, D.C. They were on that trip when the board's decision was made.

Debi Rubera, the passionate, longtime teacher who organized the fundraising and the trips, will continue teaching the students that remain next year, said Allen. She can still run the store out of teacher housing if she chooses, for future trips.  

In Pitkas Point northwest of Bethel, the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school closed because it had just eight students. But the community of 90 is connected by road to the village of St. Mary's. The Pitkas' students will attend school there next year, traveling by school bus.

"You hate to have to make that decision for a community," said Robert Stewart, acting superintendent. "But I think it will be good for the kids there to go to a larger school."

Some families had already started driving their kids to attend school in St. Mary's anyway, which contributed to the falling student enrollment at Pitkas Point, said Ivy Lamont, a bookkeeper with the traditional council. Parents wanted their children to have more educational options, including the traditional lessons offered at the school in St. Mary's, such as moose and seal hunting.  

Student population also fell in Pitkas, she said, because families had been moving to cities for work. Salmon fishing has crashed for years on the Yukon River.

In Clark's Point, population 60, just eight students remained in the K-8 school, said an official with the Southwest Region School District. Families began leaving after the Trident fish-processing plant closed down about 12 years ago.

Now that the school is closing, things may get worse, said said Robert Clark, who grew up in the village and now lives in Dillingham.

Falling populations can lead to health clinics closing. Federal health-care funding drops off when there are not enough Alaska Natives living in a community, said Clark, chief executive of the Native regional health corporation.

The clinic in the village of Ivanoff Bay closed for just that reason, following closure of the school in 2003, he said.

Building roads between villages could be one solution. It would save the state and federal government money because clinics, airports and other services could be shared, he said.

"I can't help but think that having a good-sized village with one of everything would be better," he said. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com