When leaders in the shrinking community of Karluk made a plea on social media asking two families with three to four children each to move to the Kodiak Island fishing village to save their cherished school, they did not expect thousands of responses to pour in.
“We have been bombarded with phone calls, and overwhelmed with emails,” Alicia Andrews, the president of the Karluk Tribal Council, told The Washington Post. “For years, we have been trying to save our school and our community, and now it seems we have a solution.”
The advertisement that quickly spread on social media promises families willing to relocate a year with all their expenses paid, a picturesque landscape, a three- or four-bedroom home, and fishing, kayaking and camping adventures. The new residents will also be presented with employment opportunities in the village of 37 people living along the western shore of Kodiak Island, which is reachable by a nearly 10-hour ferry ride from mainland Alaska — or two airplane rides from Anchorage.
If the village succeeds in increasing its student population to 10, it will qualify for state funding by clearing a head count mandated by law in Alaska since 1998. This will allow the two students currently there, a brother and a sister who are 11 and 10 years old, to have peers and certified teachers, and it will prevent the Kodiak Island Borough from boarding up the school building or passing financial responsibility of keeping the facility open to the tribal council.
School buildings in rural Alaska serve as more than classrooms; they are gathering places for birthday parties, a space where travelers and locals can spend the night when homes can’t be heated, computer and internet hubs, and community centers.
The Karluk school building, which lost its state funding in 2018, lost funding from the borough last month, leaving the critical community structure’s fate in the hands of the tribal council.
For the council, it is economically more viable to support two families until they become self-sufficient than to run the school building on its own in the long term. The council received roughly 5,000 responses from families across the United States and other countries. These families will now receive application forms that the council hopes to process in the coming months.
If no families are up to the task of relocating to Karluk, the school building will be one more casualty in a state facing a crisis in education funding. Schools — both as education centers and cultural hubs — permanently shutting down are often the first signs of a struggling village in Alaska, education advocates said, adding that a school shutdown encourages those remaining in the village to leave.
Karluk was not always struggling to keep its school building open; it was once a salmon boom town. In 1890, Karluk was inhabited by 1,123 people, half of whom were Chinese, brought to the community as cannery workers to help process salmon. In the past 50 years, the population has not risen beyond 99 people.
State Sen. Löki Tobin — an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee and was born and raised in Nome — said rural communities in Alaska, like Karluk, are disappearing because of climate change, the rising cost of energy and the changing nature of work. That is why, she told The Post, she is “delighted” that Karluk’s advertisement has generated so much interest.
Karluk’s school stopped receiving state funding in 2018 when its student population fell to eight students; however, the borough kept paying the building fees, keeping the space open for community purposes and informal schooling.
“It’s common that even after a school loses funding, the school building is not boarded up,” said Andrews, the president of the Karluk Tribal Council. “They keep the building in the hope that the population will rise again. It’s very expensive to reinstate a school once the building is boarded up.”
Previously, some villages struggling to meet the 10-student minimum have sought families with children at homeless and women’s shelters, but a viral ad on social media appears to be the first of its kind, say Karluk residents and officials.
“I can’t fault anyone for trying an outside-the-box approach to improve outcomes for their kids,” said Dave Johnson, president of the Kodiak Island Borough School District Board of Education. “Our people are desperate for people to come up with creative solutions.”
In June, Alaska’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $87.5 million from a one-time increase in public school funding approved by the Legislature — “which has cut our budget to the absolute bare minimum,” Johnson said. That contributed to the borough deciding to shut down the Karluk school building, he added.
School districts in the state have faced flat funding for six years while also dealing with inflation, leaving Alaska educators lobbying for more resources. Johnson said Dunleavy appears “downright hostile to public education.” Dunleavy did not return a request for comment.
Johnson acknowledged that reinstating a rural school is not an easy task, but said the school district is committed and will do everything in its power to be ready for the next school term.
The biggest hurdle, however, will be in finding teachers willing and able to live and work in Karluk, which rests on the largest island in an archipelago stretching out from Alaska proper.
“That is what keeps me up at night, finding the teacher,” he said. “Educators may agree to come, but many don’t even last the school year in a remote, rural setting.”
The tribal council told The Post that some of those who have responded to their call have been teachers with families. Johnson said that would be an ideal solution, but he can’t bet on it working out.
The teacher shortage that’s gripping the nation is heightened in Alaska because of a lack of a pension program and “criminally low salaries,” Johnson said.
Still, there are those who have stayed committed.
Since the Karluk school was shut down in 2018, teaching aide Joyce Jones has stayed on, teaching eight students at first, and now only two. When the school was shut down for seven years in the early 2000s because the student population dwindled below 10, it was Jones who taught the students by herself until the school reopened and the certified teachers returned, said Kathryn Reft, the secretary and treasurer for the council.
“The school is a big part of the community in Karluk,” Reft said. “It’s important for the morale of the village, for the two students who deserve to have peers and fully functional school, and it’s where we meet and gather.”
Johnson agrees that a village’s school serves as a symbol for the social health of the village itself.
“Once the school goes, it feels like the village is kind of on the brink,” he said. “Look at how much effort Karluk is putting in getting their school back. They don’t want to see their community fall apart.”