After lunch on April 2, Kusilvak Career Academy junior Joseph Cholok, 16, rearranged tables in a common area to stream the boys’ state basketball tournament between the Scammon Bay Eagles and Selawik Wolves.
He sat a few feet in front of the television, pointing at familiar jerseys. Cholok is from Scammon Bay, but he attends Kusilvak Academy: a one-of-a-kind school in Anchorage for students from rural communities in Southwest Alaska.
He lives here along with 27 other students from the Lower Yukon School District. The district purchased the Long House Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood in 2019 for $2.7 million, and now it’s a place where high school juniors and seniors can have opportunities that aren’t available back home.
“This is really about closing that equity gap between what a rural student gets compared to what an urban student gets, and trying to give our kids access,” said the school’s director, Conrad Woodhead.
Cholok and other students at Kusilvak are enrolled in classes through APEX — a national online learning program — and through the academy. He’s also taking technical and college classes from King Tech High School, a career technical school, and Alaska Middle College. (Cholok is currently the only student in the program taking collegiate courses.)
Cholok came to Anchorage in September with Elsie Kaganak, 18, also from Scammon Bay. They wanted to be around friends during the pandemic — all other Lower Yukon School District schools were closed at the start of the year for in-person classes.
Kaganak and Cholok were enrolled in the same King Tech class, health and human services, until she switched to welding.
On a school day in early April, Kaganak and fellow student Luke Isaac, who is from upriver in Marshall, donned heavy leather protective gear and welding helmets, and ducked behind a protective curtain to practice stick welding. The technique uses a powerful electric current to melt the metals together, and the pair kept melting the electrode, getting it stuck to the metal they were trying to weld.
“I made a few mistakes because I was a little nervous,” Kaganak said after welding class. “I just restarted and did a little better.”
Kaganak said she plans on moving to Anchorage after graduation. But Cholok, who has another year of school, is still on the fence.
“I wanted to experience what it’s like in the Anchorage schools … but I’m kind of getting tired of (Anchorage), to be honest,” Cholok said, chuckling.
This year’s cohort has 28 students, and they stay at the school for nine-week increments, shorter than a traditional boarding school model. The first group came in October of 2019 and was the largest, with 45 students.
Students don’t pay to attend; it’s a public school, and the academy is an extension of the Lower Yukon School District. Their partnership with the Anchorage School District allows the academy’s students to attend King Tech High School, where students can enroll in a variety of classes, including aviation technology, culinary arts and veterinary assisting.
They’re up at 7:45 a.m. for breakfast Monday through Friday. They disperse in groups throughout the building to work on homework and online classwork.
The academy recently expanded credit options available to students — including Arctic survival, driver’s education (a student favorite), workplace readiness, money management and employability skills.
The academy also works with local partners on curriculum, like regional Native corporation Calista to study Yup’ik.
Staff keeps students busy beyond traditional classwork, from ice fishing to cross-country skiing. Morning store runs happen on the weekends, and the group visits the Arctic Rec Center two days a week.
“We are kind of an adjunct parent in a lot of ways,” said Woodhead.
Students eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the academy. But on the weekends, residential director Conrad Woodhead says they’re on their own for meals. Sometimes, his crew barbeques outside — staffers are on-site at all times. He has two teachers on staff who each work three 12-hour shifts and an eight-hour shift, and two RAs who live in the dorms.
The school, which resembles a log cabin, still holds reminders of its former life — so much so that the front doors have a sign in each window: “THIS IS NOT A HOTEL.” The majority of renovations have taken place in the main building. Upstairs is a meeting room, along with space Woodhead plans to fill with flight and heavy equipment simulators for students.
Before this job, Woodhead worked in various leadership roles in the Bering Strait School District and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
But, he said, “there is nothing that I have done that can compare to this,” Woodhead said.
Not only are students attending the academy for school, but they’re living on-site full-time during a pandemic. Some of the teenagers have attended boarding schools before, but others haven’t. Most had never set foot on a school bus before.
The group takes a bus from their home base in Spenard to the technical school for a two-hour class four days a week.
Jeanette Paul, 18, previously attended Galena Interior Learning Academy. She could see herself living in Anchorage after graduating.
“(Kusilvak) is a pretty cool place. I don’t really get homesick,” Paul said.
Paul is enrolled in cosmetology: She took the class at the Galena school but wanted to continue learning at King Tech.
“(This) is a lot different,” Paul said. “I thought there was going to be more people. And it is bigger, but it’s OK — more space.”
Lucinda Kokarin, 19, is learning how to braid in cosmetology class. She’s been in Anchorage since September. She said it’s easier to focus here than at home in Mountain Village.
At Kusilvak, she’s been able to try out different classes to figure out what she really wants to do.
“Last session, I was taking carpentry and then I was going to take this class, but then I said, ‘No, that’s not my thing,’ " Kokarin said. “So I took carpentry. Then this session, I was going to take culinary arts but changed my mind and decided to take (cosmetology).”
Seniors head home for graduation May 8. Juniors leave the academy May 22.