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Rural Alaska school district buys Anchorage hotel to expand educational opportunities

A rural Alaska school district hoping to improve low graduation rates has purchased a $2.7 million Anchorage hotel so its older students can attend technical and college classes in the city, getting opportunities they don’t have back home.

Under the voluntary program, junior and senior high school students from 10 villages in the Lower Yukon School District will stay nine weeks at a time — about a quarter of a school year — at the former Long House Alaskan Hotel. The Southwest Alaska district purchased the hotel last month, officials said.

Among the benefits, students can take medical, electrical, aviation, hospitality and other courses at King Tech High School in a partnership with the Anchorage School District. The program is expected to start next fall.

ASD will extend its day at King Tech with funding from the rural district. Rural and Anchorage students will attend the additional courses, said Deena Bishop, ASD superintendent.

“It’s a win-win,” said Andrew “Hannibal” Anderson, Lower Yukon School District superintendent.

The superintendents said the idea could be a model for other districts.

It comes as Gov. Mike Dunleavy calls for education reform while proposing to slash K-12 funding by more than $300 million next year to help close the state’s giant budget deficit.

The governor supports collaborative ideas like this one, said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for the governor.

“He wants a quality performing educational system where kids have a meaningful education and outcomes,” Shuckerow said.

More money in the past hasn’t necessarily improved educational performance in Alaska, Shuckerow said. School districts have a “shared responsibility” with the state to improve education in these “precarious” fiscal times.

“As for communities and school districts coming forward with innovative solutions and ideas, the governor is all for it,” he said.

If Dunleavy’s budget is enacted, the Lower Yukon district would lose $8 million, one-fourth of its state funding, Anderson said. But the district board is sticking with the Anchorage program — which was in the works before Dunleavy’s budget was announced — because career and technical education is a priority.

“We’d have to lay off staff," Anderson said of Dunleavy’s proposal. "So we certainly see the need to restructure the way we deliver our educational services to accommodate for those layoffs. Part of our restructuring involves maintaining this plan for our kids.”

Anderson said the purchase of the 54-room hotel in Spenard is a cost-effective way to provide high-quality education, compared to investing in trade programs in the remote region that would struggle to attract and keep specialized instructors.

The board considered the purchase a good use of capital budget funds because the investment will hold its value, he said.

The district this month will begin reaching out to villages — eight Yup’ik communities along the lower Yukon and two on the Bering Sea coast — to explain the program, Anderson said.

Edgar Hoelscher, Lower Yukon school board chair and a resident of coastal Hooper Bay, population 1,200, said students will benefit from learning about urban life. They can earn credit for high school and post-high school vocational programs or college, and take courses at the University of Alaska Anchorage through ASD’s “middle college” program.

Separate buildings at the hotel will provide boys and girls facilities. The third building will house a learning lab where students will take distance-learning classes. They’ll meet prospective employers in Anchorage, including at Calista, the Native regional corporation for the lower Yukon.

Hoelscher said he doesn’t think the program increases the risk of brain drain from villages. Some students will work in rural Alaska, others will launch careers elsewhere. That’s their choice. They should be ready to get jobs anywhere.

"This is an opportunity to make themselves who they want to be,” he said.

Students who take career technical courses are more likely to graduate than their counterparts, Anderson said.

Just 2 percent of Lower Yukon School District students read at proficient levels, as measured by state standardized testing, he said. About four in 10 don’t graduate high school in four years.

“We really believe this partnership is a game changer for our kids,” Anderson said.

Jim LaBelle Sr. said he likes the district’s concept, in part because it’s optional for students and their families. It’s a big departure from the mandatory boarding school in Wrangell he attended, starting at age 8 in the 1950s.

The federal or church-run boarding schools at that time ripped children from families and villages most of the year, causing lasting historical trauma after many students were physically or sexually abused, said LaBelle, a board member with National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

“I think the (district’s) idea is a good one, and the reason for that is it’s only for nine weeks,” LaBelle said. “The fact they are 11th- and 12th-graders is also a good sign because they will have a little more emotional maturity than they would if they were younger.”

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