Meet an Alaska graduating class of one

As a Kodiak Island teen prepares to leave her familiar village, her single mom encourages independence.

AKHIOK — Eighteen-year-old Denise Kalmakoff sat in front of her makeup mirror with her hand on her chin and sighed. She had less than two hours before her high school graduation would begin and much to do to get ready at her small, wood-paneled home in Kodiak Island’s southernmost village.

“I don’t know where to start,” Kalmakoff said.

Across Alaska, lots of teens felt the stress of lunging toward the high school finish line this month, but Kalmakoff felt a pressure known to just a few. In Akhiok, an Alutiiq village of about 52 people, all eyes were on her. She was her school’s entire graduating class.

In the bathroom, she dabbed at her face while her visiting older sister stood behind her to style her hair. Kalmakoff’s mother, Sandra Zeedar, looked at a torn-out page from a notebook while she waited at the kitchen table and put finishing touches on the brief speech she planned to give.

“You are standing where I stood 37 years ago,” Zeedar had written. She had also been a graduating class of one in Akhiok. Kalmakoff wears her 1982 class ring.

Zeedar raised Kalmakoff mostly on her own, she said. They’ve leaned on each other for support as a family unit of two.

“The years went by too fast,” Zeedar said.

Now, Zeedar has mounting health problems, but she doesn’t want Kalmakoff to look back when she leaves for college soon. Kalmakoff has mixed feelings. She worries about her mom, but she also wants to travel the world.

That day, she needed to make it to school one last time. Eventually, she emerged in a black dress and heels, her long hair in relaxed curls. She bunched the skirt over the saddle of her four-wheeler and motored up the hill for the ceremony in her honor.

Nearly everyone in the village was already there waiting.

Small-school life

In Anchorage, seniors from Alaska’s biggest high schools are celebrated by the hundreds at crowded ceremonies in Sullivan Arena each May. In Akhiok, Kalmakoff was the only 12th-grader in a high school student body of three. Alaska Department of Education and Early Development enrollment data from October showed 34 schools in the state had just one senior.

Akhiok, about 90 air miles from the city of Kodiak, is one of four rural schools on Kodiak Island with graduating classes of one this year. Most homes here are on one unpaved road between the airstrip and the Protection of the Theotokos Russian Orthodox church. Its rocky coastline is protected from the rugged North Pacific Ocean by Alitak Bay.

So much about school is distinct here compared to Alaska’s cities and regional hubs. Keith Gray, the sole high school teacher, said that each student essentially gets a personalized curriculum guided by lots of individual attention. Akhiok has one other teacher for elementary-age students: his wife, Barbara Gray. The school has two teacher’s aides.

“You do a little bit of everything, whatever it takes to make the wheels go ‘round,” said Keith Gray, who plans to move back to Maine this summer after five years in Akhiok and two more before that on Afognak Island.

Peggy Azuyak, principal for all five rural schools on Kodiak Island, said it’s a challenge to compensate for geographic limitations and a small staff.

“You have to get creative,” Azuyak said.

Rural Kodiak schools now make regular use of teleconference technology. It was just a couple years ago that internet data capabilities in Akhiok improved enough for it to work reliably, staff said. Kalmakoff took violin lessons and some of her welding instruction that way.

On-site teachers are responsible for teaching English, math, science and social studies, but in some instances they facilitate and support coursework that is hosted online. The district introduced the computer-based Teaching Textbooks math platform to rural schools this year.

This spring, the Kodiak Island Borough School District also stepped up its effort to introduce more group opportunities for rural high-schoolers. It brought nine of them from five villages to Kodiak for a week of intensive instruction, cultural workshops, driver’s education and evening social activities. Students also got the chance to attend the Kodiak High School prom.

Though Akhiok’s population has fallen in recent years, residents say they’re happy the school has remained open.

“It’s the heartbeat of our community,” said teacher’s aide Phyllis Amodo, a mother of five.

Other small villages on the island haven’t been so fortunate. Schools closed in both Larsen Bay and Karluk in 2018 when student enrollment dropped below 10 students, the cutoff to receive state funding, which is $300,000 per school, according to Azuyak.

Akhiok ended the 2018-19 year with 13 students.

Kalmakoff has done well academically, particularly in writing and art, Gray said. The school has reliably graduated its students, he said. He can recall only one student who dropped out during his time in Akhiok. But preparing students academically is just one hurdle. Another is helping them transition to larger cities and college coursework in an unfamiliar environment.

“I think it’s just an explosion of new stuff,” Gray said.

Rural student counselor Marilyn Gail said the district is trying to improve the odds. A grant-funded program allows students to visit Alaska colleges they might not otherwise get to see before they enroll.

“How can you say yes to a place you’ve never seen? You’ve got to have that visceral experience,” Gail said.

[ See more photos of Ahkiok in the slideshow below]

Kalmakoff chose UAA, in part, to be relatively close to home, though it still requires two plane rides to get from Anchorage to Akhiok. Kalmakoff, who enjoys basketball and volleyball, photography and pop music, said she looks forward to meeting new people.

“I think it’s, like, the best part of life,” she said.

A few months ago, Kalmakoff took her first trip out of Alaska, one of the few trips she’s taken that wasn’t for sports or medical reasons. She joined others from Akhiok at a conference in Las Vegas, she said. She saw the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.

“I went on a roller coaster for the first time. It was amazing,” she said.

Amodo said a lack of jobs and housing has contributed to Akhiok’s declining population. Cost of living is high, too. Barge service is rare. Since there’s no store, groceries mostly arrive via plane from Kodiak at a freight cost of 92 cents per pound. Akhiok’s gas and heating fuel comes from the Alitak Cannery, a skiff ride away.

Amodo counted how many occupied homes the village has now: 18.

“Today’s lifestyles, it’s kind of hard when you don’t have a job when you come back. It’s very limited here, and I can understand how other people have moved out just because they need to survive,” Amodo said. “It’s a decline everywhere around the whole island.”

But the pull of Akhiok is strong for Kalmakoff. Boarding a plane for college will mean leaving her mother behind. They’ve gotten through some of life’s highs and lows together, she said.

“We’ve just had a really close relationship throughout the years, and it’s just been me and her,” Kalmakoff said.

Family unit

Zeedar sat beneath a Russian Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary in her home a day before her daughter’s graduation and glanced out the back window. The gentle slopes of the nearby mountains had yet to turn from brown to green.

She recalled a time when Akhiok had double the residents and lots more kids. So much is different now. Winter isn’t as snowy. Fewer salmon return these days, she said. The berries don’t flourish like they once did. Grown children don’t return to the village as often.

“It’s way too quiet,” she said.

Akhiok has been Zeedar’s home for all but a few of her 55 years. But she isn’t nostalgic for a perfect time that never really was. Alcohol-related trouble took a toll during her childhood and in the relationships she’s had since, she said.

“There was a lot of obstacles that I had to overcome,” Zeedar said.

Zeedar, who is divorced, has three other adult children. She ended her relationship with Kalmakoff’s father about six years ago, she said. They weren’t married. She says she’s no longer interested in marriage.

“Nobody comes by. Nobody bothers me. I don’t feel threatened, nothing, at home,” Zeedar said.

Zeedar said her daughter became her focus instead. She hopes her life will be a lesson for her children.

“They don’t need to count on a marriage or relationship lasting forever. Stuff do fall apart,” she said. “I want to let you know, if that happens, you can make it on your own,” she said.

Growing up, Kalmakoff took on more responsibilities than most girls her age, Zeedar said. They worked together to pump fuel, haul groceries and gather driftwood. When money was tight, they made do with less.

“On Father’s Day, she tells me, ‘Happy Father’s Day, Mom,’” Zeedar said.

“She played both parts,” Kalmakoff said.

She had help. Kalmakoff said friend Marcella Amodo treated her like family. The mayor of Akhiok, Dan McCoy, also looked out for her, made sure she had money for school clothes and taught her how to drive.

“He takes care of everybody in this village,” Kalmakoff said.

Kalmakoff invited McCoy to make comments at her graduation ceremony, but McCoy, who has been coping with health issues, didn’t feel up to the task. It will be hard to see her leave, he said.

But McCoy hopes Kalmakoff will heed the advice he’s been preaching since she was young: Stand on your own two feet.

“I push her to get education, and a good job with benefits is the end result, so that she has to depend on no man for a living,” McCoy said.

At Zeedar’s house, an announcement arrived via VHF radio channel 79, the one that connects each household.

“Good morning, Akhiok. Just a final reminder, tomorrow is graduation.”

In 2017, Zeedar was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She’d been having symptoms for years, but her slow-motion movements, involuntary spasms and hallucinations became more than she could ignore.

Zeedar fell into a depression when reality set in, but she tried to shield Kalmakoff from her feelings.

“I’d cry when she’s not around,” Zeedar said.

They can talk about her illness now, but Zeedar doesn’t want it to weigh Kalmakoff down. Akhiok will always be their home, but when Kalmakoff leaves for college, Zeedar doesn’t want her to return too soon.

“She keeps saying ‘Mom, what are you going to do when I’m gone?’ And I say, ‘Don’t worry about me …’ ” Zeedar said.

“As long as you’re doing what you and I set you up for, continue doing it,” Zeedar said she advises. “Because I want you to do what I didn’t do, which was go to college.’”

Graduation day

Wearing a white cap and gown, Kalmakoff entered the graduation ceremony last, following two soon-to-be kindergartners and one middle-schooler who is stepping up to high school. The plain multipurpose room was decorated with blue and white balloons and big signs lettered with glitter and glue. Several school district officials flew in join the residents and staff.

Kalmakoff danced to Alutiiq songs with the Kasukuak Dancers at the start of the ceremony, songs about bashful eyes, about rocking a baby to sleep before a hunting trip, and about keeping hands busy while staying connected to God.

When it was time for her to speak, she had to pause and breathe deep after catching a glimpse of Zeedar’s damp eyes in the audience.

“I did it," she said. “Mom, I did it.”

“I will always be here for you,” Zeedar said when she had a chance to step to the podium.

After it ended, the two hugged under the balloon archway at the rear of the room. Then Kalmakoff went home and napped, exhausted from the run-up to the moment.

Later, she joined friends at the village’s event hall, which was festive with streamers and loaded with food to share. Young men hefted a sound system from a nearby home to fill the room with dance music.

From the doorway to the party, Kalmakoff could see her whole village as a light rain started to fall over it. She’ll miss its beauty, the sound of its birds and the familiarity of Akhiok’s seasonal activities, she said. Here, she knows where not to walk because of bear danger, and knows when to put away food for the winter.

“Everyone around here is family and friends and whatnot, and I see them every day,” Kalmakoff said. “And going up to Anchorage is a whole ‘nother story.”

As daylight faded, Kalmakoff ducked out for a few minutes to walk Akhiok’s dirt roads with a friend. Desiree Eluska took pictures as Kalmakoff posed with a helium-filled Class of 2019 balloon and smiled.

Kalmakoff said she’ll leave for UAA in August to study journalism and public communications. Eluska will take her place as Akhiok’s only high school senior.

Zeedar said she’s not worried about being alone. She does physical therapy exercises each morning to slow Parkinson’s effect and maintain her independence. She also leans on the power of prayer.

“Just keep in touch with me all the time,” Zeedar said she tells Kalmakoff. “Let me know that you’re OK.”

Marc Lester

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at