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2 small schools in Southeast Alaska shut their doors

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 15, 2016
  • Published September 14, 2016

The Port Protection school. (Photo by Jo Wendel)

Two Southeast schools in tiny towns have shut their doors this year after their enrollments were expected to sink below 10 students, the minimum for full state funding.

The school in Port Protection, on the north end of Prince of Wales Island, had only 13 students last school year, while the other, Tenakee Springs School on Chichagof Island, had seven at the time of the October 2015 enrollment count, according to state data.

Residents in both towns said in the past, the school districts had opted to draw from their savings to keep the schools open when enrollment declined, but now they saw little chance of a future boost in student numbers unless new families moved in.

"There are no more kids here," said Litzi Botello, a 57-year-old resident of Port Protection, an isolated fishing village of about 50 people who must boat a few miles to the nearest road.

Botello has lived in Port Protection for 35 years and said she remembers the school building arriving in the community on a barge. It came from an old logging camp, as did the school's floating gym. Both buildings long served as a hub for events — Thanksgiving dinners, bake sales, basketball games and an annual bazaar. She said she feels that absence already.

"There's no activities," Botello said earlier this month, just a few days into what would have been the beginning of the school year.

The Southeast Island School District will continue to maintain the building, paying someone to turn on the heat periodically in case more people move into town and the school can reopen in later years, said Superintendent Lauren Burch. "It's a painful thing," he said of the added costs.

By last week, the state education department had only received requests for the two Southeast closures, said Elwin Blackwell, the department's school finance manager.

Each year, two to three schools typically close in Alaska, he said. Economies dry up and people move to bigger towns with more jobs and more services, like hospitals and grocery stores. Resulting school closures can have a profound impact on the local communities, drawing away families and shuttering a building that once offered employment and a space for community activities.

"I believe that those schools are what make a community," Burch said. "Otherwise it's just summer homes and recreation people and they tend to just dry up over the winter."

Last year, eight of the nine schools in Burch's district enrolled fewer than 25 students. This school year, 119 of Alaska's 507 schools enroll fewer than 50 students, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

The state requires schools to have at least 10 students during the October count to receive full funding and if enrollment falls below that standard, the district must decide to either pick up more costs or close the school.

Burch's district once chose to support three schools that fell below 10 students. It burned through a lot of savings and couldn't do that again, he said. He suggested  the state should reduce funding proportionately when enrollment is in single digits.

"The artificial number of 10 is troublesome," he said. "If we have nine students, 90 percent, eight is 80 percent. Then I could try to carry it and get through lean times."

Burch said he has to learn family and community dynamics to determine who may leave a town and when. The week families receive their Permanent Fund dividend checks can become the most precarious time for enrollment. Some families take trips to a larger community, like Ketchikan, and never come back.

The minimum number of students to receive state funding arose as a political issue before the start of the last legislative session, when Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, said she would consider increasing it from 10 to 20 or 25. Schools rallied in the "#smallschoolsmatter" movement to buck the potential proposal and the Legislature made no change to the minimum.

Burch said he thinks that discussion in the Legislature deterred families from moving to small towns, fearful schools may sit on the brink of closure. In recent years, the Southeast Island School District has also closed schools in Edna Bay and Meyers Chuck, he said.

Last year, Tenakee Springs was one of four schools in the Chatham School District. Superintendent Bernie Grieve said declining enrollment prompted the school board to temporarily close the school. He said students still living in the town could enroll in Chatham's correspondence program and would have access to a tutor as well as the building's Independent Learning Center three days a week.

"Chatham School District is not just closing the school, but looking at an alternative to provide a top notch educational experience to the students," he said in an email.

Tenakee Springs Mayor John Wisenbaugh has lived in town for 43 years. He said he moved there to work in a logging camp. He remembered back to a time when 31 students filled the school and a couple years later the population dive-bombed to 12.

"They closed two logging camps," Wisenbaugh said. "It was pretty abrupt."

The population currently hovers around 100 in the fishing town, home to a natural hot springs. The town's employers include the U.S. Postal Service, the City of Tenakee Springs and the boat harbor, according to its website.

"The school is just a symptom of the overall lack of employment here," Wisenbaugh said. "There aren't any jobs. There isn't anything to attract somebody aside from the lifestyle."

Leslie and Jeff Theurer both lost their teaching jobs in Port Protection when the school closed. The husband and wife were in a unique position: eight of the school's 13 students were part of their family. Last year, the school also had its largest graduating class: five.

"Had the school stayed open, we would have retired there," said Leslie Theurer. "The community was amazing. They were very welcoming. Our students were very high performing because the parents put a lot of value in education."

Botello, Port Protection's longtime resident, is still hoping the school may reopen one day. The town's a lot different without students around.

"Maybe a couple more big families will move in," Botello said. "I think everyone is pretty hopeful."

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