Southcentral Alaska’s Russian Old Believer schools deliver bilingual education immersed in cultural customs

The Southern Kenai Peninsula is home to several villages of Russian Old Believers. In their public schools, which follow their own calendar, Old Believer culture and bilingual education run throughout the school day.

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

VOZNESENKA — Out East End Road from Homer, Voznesenka has a village feel but a school of more than 130 pre-K through 12th-grade students. There aren’t buses or any athletic programs. Principal Mike Wojciak has been living and working here for over a decade.

“We’re very unique compared to … if you are looking at the Central Pen schools or Homer. We’re very much a village school,” Wojciak said. “We’re 24 miles from town and there are no town amenities here.”

The Southern Kenai Peninsula is home to several villages of Russian Old Believers, a group that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1654 and came to the United States in the 1960s. In the public schools in the villages, Old Believer culture and bilingual education run throughout the school day.

The first Russian Old Believer village on the peninsula was founded in the late 1960s, when settlers came to Alaska seeking an escape from modern worldly influences. The schools are public, but because the village populations are 100% Old Believer, the schools accommodate the religious and cultural customs of the community.

“We do not have any students in this school who are not from this community and a part of the culture,” Wojciak said.

The schools follow their own calendar, which starts earlier than the rest of the district and ends later to accommodate more than a dozen Holy Days and a weeklong Easter holiday. Students adhere to a traditional style of dress, and certain dietary restrictions. Old Believers can’t eat food touched by people outside their faith, a custom that led to a distinct tradition at some of the schools — around noon, every student goes home for lunch. They return in the afternoon.

All of the classes here at Voznesenka are multigrade, and all students take Russian through 10th grade. Voz, as it’s known, once had a thriving football team, though it has since dwindled. In the school’s half-size gym, the athletic director creates his own sports that can be played in the limited space.


Razdolna School

Razdolna, 9 miles past Voz, has a school of its own. Michael Sturm is the principal here.

“It’s kind of like a homogenous group,” Sturm said. “The school needs to be able to adapt and reflect the needs of the village.”

The school is made up of four buildings, most of them portables, overlooking Kachemak Bay and the Kenai Mountains. Most students commute by four-wheeler.

Sturm lives an hour away in Anchor Point, but he’s focused on keeping cultural traditions and community values a part of the school day for his 75 students. He’s also taking a bilingual approach in a school where nearly all kids begin school speaking no English.

Preschool is taught in Russian for most of the year. Through first grade, students learn all their material in both languages. Kindergarten and first-grade teacher Marilyn Duncan collaborates with a Russian teacher throughout the day to teach the bilingual class.

“All day long in this class we are mingling our two languages,” Duncan said. “They are learning the English letters, they are learning the Russian letters.”

For the first quarter of the year, Duncan says her kindergartners respond to everything in Russian. But soon, with the help of the two teachers, they pick up English, and begin learning all of the content in both languages — and are at grade level in English proficiency by the end of the year.

Sturm said although community members’ religious beliefs lead them to shy away from technology, computers are used at Razdolna to a “moderate extent” to meet learning goals. During fasting times like Lent, called post, technology is completely disallowed, and he said the staff are always ready to switch to offline learning.

“We’re here as a service to them. Our product is productive citizens,” he said. “If they don’t leave here with what the village needs, then we’re not doing our job.”

To that end, there’s a retrofitted shipping container that houses a welding studio where students can get certified, and Sturm himself teaches a trapping program. He has also integrated construction knowledge into math classes.

Most families work in commercial fishing or construction, and children face pressures to enter the workforce early.

“We really gotta think on our toes to be able to keep particularly our high school boys engaged. They’re the kids who drop out at higher rates than everybody else,” Sturm said. “We’ve been working really hard to keep them here.”


Kachemak-Selo School

The farthest Russian village is Kachemak-Selo, which is beyond the end of the road system. To get to the community, you have to drive down an 800-foot unpaved switchback, with hairpin turns so sharp that cars have to make a three-point turn just to get down, then drive a mile along the beach. The borough once proposed putting in a gondola to get students up the hill.

Staff who commute from Homer, like elementary teacher Alana Greear, park at the top of the switchback and walk, or catch rides.

“I can get from top to bottom in 10 minutes, and then walking up the beach, that’s the long part,” she said. “That takes me about half an hour.”

Greear, K-Selo’s only K-5 teacher, said the school is a tight-knit group and she’s relished watching the children grow up in her class year after year. She said paraprofessionals are key to teaching a multigrade bilingual class.

“I have an (English language) aide, I have a Title 1 aide, I have migrant services that help us because so many of my families are fishing families,” she said. “I have just a regular classroom aide, I have a (special education) aide.”

K-Selo is smaller than the other schools, with just 27 students. The bayside village has long been a cattle ranching community and ranchers let their cows roam free, so they sometimes end up on the school playground.


Kachemak-Selo’s buildings are in dire condition, and one building was even condemned a couple years ago. The community’s decades-long fight for a new building faltered when Kenai Peninsula voters rejected a bond to fund a required match in 2018. And although that effort has been revived recently, its future is still uncertain.

The schools out here deal with another building issue, because the district often leases the school buildings from the community. That can make maintenance responsibilities hard to coordinate, like at Voznesenka, where half of the buildings are owned by the district and half are owned by the village. In one structure, the bathroom is owned by the village, and the rest of the building by the borough.

“It’s tough,” said Wojciak, the Voznesenka principal. “It takes some effort to figure out who is responsible for what and getting people out here to get done what needs to get done. They do support our needs. Do we feel sometimes we get a little more left out than the schools right in town? Sure.”

The schools’ locations can be a hard selling point when it comes to staffing out here — some staff are Old Believers who live in the villages, others are not. Both principals say their pitch to potential teachers is the reward of teaching in such a tight-knit, family-like environment. The students say they appreciate that relationship too.

Next: Visiting fly-in schools in Alaska Native villages across the water.

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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.