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In Rural Alaska, villages fight extinction once schools close

Alex DeMarban
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.
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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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LIME VILLAGE -- An Alaska village fades when its school dies. That's because families with children often move when the school doors shut, sparking a downward spiral that can cost a village other services, such as regular mail deliveries or air travel.

Stony River hopes it doesn't get caught in that whirlwind, but if the school closes this summer the village will have plenty of company.

Twenty-seven rural Alaska schools have shut down in the last 13 years in a trend that arches from the Panhandle in Southeast Alaska to the tundra in Western Alaska. 

The shutdowns began in 1999, after the Legislature passed a law cutting off state funds for schools with nine or fewer students. Four years ago, the Legislature passed another law to help ease the burden for districts with such schools. It phases out state support over four years, rather than ending funding abruptly.

Still, the schools keep closing. Six were shuttered in the last two years alone -- including Chistochina in the Copper River region, Pedro Bay at the upper Alaska Peninsula and Nikolski in the Aleutian Islands.

There may be little respite. This spring, Stony River was one of three Alaska schools with nine students or less, according to the state Education Department. The others are in False Pass and Akutan. Fifteen other schools have just 10 students.

Only a few rural regions have avoided the closings. They include Northwest Alaska, home to one of the world's largest zinc mines, and the North Slope, home to the nation's most productive oil fields, efforts that provide jobs and taxes that help keep residents from leaving. 

Stony River along the upper Kuskokwim River once enjoyed such jobs. Mining flourished there decades ago, and it may see a revival if NovaGold Resources and Barrick Gold Corp. get the go-ahead for development at the Donlin Gold prospect near a village to the west. But that seems like a faraway dream.

Education center, social center, jobs center

For now, Stony River's biggest employer is the school, providing work for two teachers, an aide, a janitor and a maintenance worker. It's also the community center and a source of clean water in a village where most homes lack plumbing.

Close a school and you kill the village, many will tell you. If that's true, it's a slow death.  

The Athabascan community of Lime Village, with its spruce-plank homes and rolling terrain, lost its school almost five years ago when enrollment dropped to six. Today, just 21 people remain -- less than half the population for the 2000 census -- though the village felt lively on a recent spring day.

Donate to Gusty Michael School's D.C. field trip

A handful of men, recently returned from a marathon camping trip to meet friends from another village, plunged greasy hands into their snowmachines. Some of the village's four children, two of whom can start school next year, played in the snow.   

The village is "dead" since the school closed, said Joe Bobby, working on a snowmachine on its side in the snow. He waved a socket wrench at unoccupied houses along the hill. "That one's empty. That one's empty. There's another empty one."

Domino effect

A fish camp along the Stony River that became a permanent settlement, 46 people lived in Lime Village during the 2000 Census. Then its numbers began eroding. Families with children moved away, seeking cheaper living and jobs in larger communities.

The school closed as the global price for oil pushed heating fuel and gasoline -- delivered only by air -- to nearly $9 a gallon. Joe's daughter, Katrina Bobby, moved to Red Devil -- three villages away -- to graduate from high school. Then the school in Red Devil shut down, too. That village had 48 residents in 2000, but just 19 last year.

When the Lime Village school closed, change came suddenly as some families left, residents said. And agencies reconsidered projects, uncertain about investing in a village with a questionable future, said Fred Bobby, grandfather to the village's four kids.

The state Department of Transportation didn't upgrade the runway as expected, and the new village generator purchased to power runway lights sat idle, said Fred Bobby, who planned a caribou hunt the next morning.  

The closing also cost cherished jobs and free mail service, reducing air travel at the same time. Now, the tribal government charters a plane to deliver mail once a month.

"It's a domino effect. You close the school, people leave, and then you don't have enough people to maintain other services," said Sen. Albert Kookesh, Senate chair of the Bush Caucus.

Kookesh's district, the largest state legislative district in the US, sweeps from Southeast to this region. The district has lost six schools in the last few years, including Red Devil and Lime Village.

The closures won't stop without new development, he said. Rural regions need jobs that allow residents to work two-week stints, such as rare-earth mineral prospects he hopes will soon start in Southeast, or the Donlin Creek prospect.

Old-fashioned ingenuity

Rural Alaska Dreams

Rep. Alan Dick, who chairs the House Education Committee, once taught school in Stony River and now represents the area. After moving from Massachusetts in 1966, he worked at the long-defunct Red Devil Mine, once one of the largest mercury mines in the US.

He agrees new development is needed. Locals need to come up with their own ideas for work, too, even selling their artwork on eBay. He's seen too many people lulled into easy living by government handouts. They need to display some of the old-fashioned ingenuity he's witnessed before in the region.

"There's a Yup'ik word pronounced ee-tug-a-nuk. It means a slough without a current," he said. "That's where we are. We need some current. Something flowing into the creek."

As for those in Lime Village, they're digging in. Farron Bobby, the young power plant operator, built his own house with planks cut from a sawmill. His home is still under construction -- like a lot of projects in the Bush that are built as money and supplies arrive. But it features a lookout atop the second floor from which he can glass the terrain for caribou.

He and his wife, Jennifer, plan to home school their three kids, using a Christian program that will send him lessons for about $100 a month.

"It's lots more lonesome, not as much people around," since the school shut down. But village life beats living in a sprawling city any day, he says.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com