In the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s fly-in communities, students connect with modern opportunities and traditional knowledge

Several Alaska Native villages within the borough and off the road system boast vibrant schools with individualized learning and cultural integration.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a five-part series about the wide range of school communities on the Kenai Peninsula.

TYONEK — On a breezy March morning, a group of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District staff boarded an airplane at the Kenai Municipal Airport. Among them was Christy Gomez, the principal-teacher at the Tebughna School.

Tebughna is the school in Tyonek, a sovereign Alaska Native village on the west side of Cook Inlet. Tebughna means “The Beach People” in Dena’ina. After landing at the community’s gravel airstrip, Gomez got a ride to school from another teacher, and dove into her K-5 class.

“We’re small, we’re personalized, we meet them where they’re at, we do our best to give them undivided, individualized attention,” Gomez said. “Students come from all over, to us, at any point in the year, and we make them feel very welcomed. I think the power of a small school is we can do that.”

On the Kenai Peninsula, several Native villages with small populations boast vibrant schools that focus on connecting students with modern opportunities and traditional knowledge. Tebughna serves 17 students in the isolated community of about 150 people. In winter and early spring, students get to school on snowmachines. The school has a strong relationship with the Tyonek Native Corp., which provides funding for programs like cross-country skiing, field trips and the school’s hydroponic garden.

“We’re trying to just grow some really good vegetables,” Gomez said, gesturing to a leafy tower. “The community also comes through and they can cut and pick what they want. So it’s kind of like a community activity, as well.”

Gomez says there used to be more job opportunities, more housing and a lower cost of living in the village. In the past when Tyonek was a timber milling town, there were 100 students. And when she started at Tebughna 16 years ago, there were closer to 40. But the population has dwindled, which is a problem because when schools drop below 10 students, they lose state funding.

“Right now, I feel like we’re gonna be OK. Maybe for the next two to three years, sure,” she said. “But after that, I don’t know. I keep thinking if this school were to shut down, that the heart of the village would also go with it.”


At the high school level, she said Tebughna competes with boarding schools at Mt. Edgecumbe and Nenana that offer amenities like sports and housing.

Tebughna once had a competitive basketball team, but these days, with a smaller population, students are more interested in Native Youth Olympics, the series of traditional athletic contests for Alaska Native children. Some Tyonek high schoolers have been successful at Arctic Winter Games competitions. After lunch, students head to the full-size gym, where younger kids watch a high-schooler practice his one-foot high kicks.

Classes here are small and individualized. On that day in March, just three middle schoolers and two high schoolers were in class. Twice a week, students take a Dena’ina language class with an Anchorage-based instructor, Edna Standifer, who Zooms into the elementary room.

The class kicks off with everyone introducing themselves in Dena’ina. Then, they dive into phrases about thirst and hunger. The lesson is interjected with Dena’ina singing, which students get up and gather in the center of the class to perform.

Among the elementary pupils are Gomez’s own daughters, who, like many students, attend school with several of their siblings. Gomez lives across the street from the school in district-owned housing, alongside the other teachers.

Groceries come by plane from Anchorage, 35 air miles away. Residents order on services like Instacart, and have their groceries dropped off at the airstrip. There’s one gas pump, supplied by a fuel plane from Kenai. In the summer, the village relies on barges for cars or supplies.

Nanwalek School

Two hundred air miles south of Tyonek, the farthest school from the district office is in Nanwalek, another fly-in-only village across Kachemak Bay from Homer.

In Nanwalek, the school is essentially at the end of the village’s notorious banana-shaped gravel runway. It’s a two-minute walk out of the plane up to the K-12 school of 80 students. Penny Bearden-Brown has worked here for 12 years, the last three as a principal-teacher.

“I think I really do have the best job in the district,” she said.

The school is 100% Alaska Native and Russian Orthodox. Once a week, on what the school calls “Culture and Community Wednesdays,” local leaders come in to teach things like cooking, fishing, Native Youth Olympics disciplines and traditional seal dance.

“It’s really hard for teachers coming from the Outside to be able to incorporate the culture as much as we want to,” Bearden-Brown said. “But the community is super supportive in coming in and helping the kids do those things.”

But not all the teachers come from Outside; a lot of the staff are recent alumni, including the Sugt’stun language teacher. Every student, K-12, takes Sugt’stun, a Yup’ik language spoken by the Sugpiaq people, which some use at home and others learn at school.


All of the classes at Nanwalek are multigrade. Amid the rollout of a new districtwide language arts curriculum, Bearden-Brown sees that dynamic as more of an advantage.

“I think when you teach one grade level, you have a lot of variety between your high kid and your low kid, and I don’t think that that’s a lot different than having a kinder and a first grader in the same room,” she said.

Unlike Tyonek, the school building here is bursting at the seams. Upstairs, an area that used to be teacher housing has been converted to a too-small classroom. Bearden-Brown said the physical building is the school’s primary challenge, because it’s just not big enough for the number of students and it’s hard to get district maintenance workers out to the village for daily plumbing issues.

The renowned Russian Orthodox priest Father Michael Oleksa worked as a middle and high school teacher in Nanwalek before his death earlier this year. Bearden-Brown said his influence has been especially visible in the speeches students were preparing for graduation.

“He emphasized to the kids, especially sophomores, juniors, seniors, that if we looked at the school as a community, then they are kind of the elders of the community,” she said. “And the elders in our community are revered, but they also have a lot of responsibility for being good role models. So he kind of instilled that in them.”

She was speaking on the last day before Nanwalek’s weeklong break for Orthodox Easter, one way their calendar varies from most of the district. Right after they return, students were set to celebrate graduation for those going into kindergarten, fifth and eighth grade, and for the eight graduating seniors.


But before that was prom. A group of senior girls decorated the gym with fairy lights and ivy garlands to capture this year’s garden gala theme. All students in grades six through 12 go to prom, and sometimes they even invite dates from the nearby Port Graham School.

Next: A look at the most traditional schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s population centers.

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This reporting project, which originally appeared on KDLL and is republished here with permission, is supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Alaska Impact Reporting Initiative grant.