Three weeks after the school year was supposed to begin, the school in the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina finally opened its doors to students, having resolved water supply issues that pushed back the start of classes.
But the delays and a history of erratic operations had already forced multiple pupils to leave for schools in other Alaska communities.
Part of the challenge: The new Kisimġiugtuq School was built further from Kivalina, about 7 miles away, at a site where residents plan to eventually move as erosion and storms eat away at the ground where their homes are currently located.
After the building opened last year, unreliable bus service and harsh weather made it difficult for students to consistently get to school. During fall and winter storms, the road connecting the village on the barrier island to the school site inland can become difficult for school buses or personal vehicles to travel.
Elaine May is a mother of three and moved to Kivalina, her hometown, last December. After a semester of unreliable school service, she decided to send two of her children, Adryana Field and Byron Adams Jr., to her mother in Noorvik this school year.
“They didn’t even get to have a full week after we moved (last December). It would be stormy, and they would need to plow the road,” she said. “Some days, they would even go to school and then they would have to be coming back around 1 p.m. because of the storms. They wouldn’t be able to finish a school day.”
May said that her daughter, Field, likes going to school, so it was important for her to be in a place where classes were consistent and she could compete with her schoolmates. May’s son Adams was behind on reading from the pandemic and didn’t get to work on his skills last semester in Kivalina, she said.
“They missed quite a bit of school and it set my son back,” May said.
Other families in Kivalina said the transportation problems and delays had also prompted them to send their children to schools elsewhere in the state.
“Most families moved to educate their kids elsewhere,” said Josie Adams, a mother of two children who still attend Kisimġiugtuq School. “It’s a sad story for our children.”
Exactly how many students have left this school year isn’t clear: As of Wednesday, questions about student departures sent to officials at the Northwest Arctic Borough School District and Kisimġiugtuq School hadn’t been answered. The Alaska Department of Education & Early Development doesn’t have this year’s data on enrollment or student transfers yet, data manager Nancy Eagan said. Last year, 156 students enrolled in classes and nine students graduated from the school, according to the state.
The Kisimġiugtuq School’s opening this year was delayed at first because of issues with the city water pump, and later because of the need to test water quality and fill the school’s water tank, said Principal Jeremy Millard.
The school year started Aug. 22 across the rest of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, but in Kivalina, students weren’t able to begin class until Sept. 12.
To make up for the lost time, Kivalina teachers put together homework packets for the students and delivered them to the village early this month. But without instruction, completing those was a challenge for students, Adams said.
Kivalina resident Janet Mitchell ended up sending her grandson Aaron Jordan, whom she calls “Air Jordan,” to the Star of the Northwest Magnet School in Kotzebue this month. For her, she said, that decision stemmed from last year’s experience, this year’s delays and overall “knowing how bad things were with the school being so far away.”
Mitchell said students had to miss too many in-person classes when the facility was closed during severe storms. On days when buses weren’t running, her grandson rode a snowmachine to school in dangerous conditions, she said.
“Air Jordan asked me himself if he can go to school at Kotzebue,” Mitchell said.
As of Wednesday, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District hadn’t responded to a question about how many days the school building was inaccessible last year. Data wasn’t available from the state education department on the number of days the school was closed or shifted to remote learning last year, though broader data indicated that at least in March, more than half of students were on remote learning for more than half the month.
Superintendent Terri Walker said teaching continued on school days impacted by weather.
“We did not cancel any school days as our students did remote learning from their homes,” Walker said. Multiple Kivalina parents said remote learning on stormy days consisted of students completing homework packets they brought from school.
Aside from the weather, mechanical issues and staffing challenges had also disrupted bus service last year. The school’s sole bus driver at the time worked a schedule on rotation, so there was no bus service during his days off. On some days without buses running, fewer than half of students made it to school, Millard has said.
This year, new buses have arrived in Kivalina, and the school has one driver and is looking to hire one more, according to Walker.
Some parents said the decision to send their children to schools in other communities this year was difficult, but they believe it’s what’s best for their students.
Eugene Wesley said two of his daughters now study in Anchorage, where they can enjoy more classes to choose from, socialize with more people and have consistent schooling and sports programs.
“For the school being closed too much, nobody was schooling or hardly playing sports,” he said about Kivalina. “Whatever is best for my children to succeed, I’d rather have them away from me than to not learn or get the right education.”
May — the mother who sent two of her children to Noorvik — said school started on time there, so she was glad she decided to send them away. Both Field and Adams seem happy to live and study in Noorvik, she said, but May misses her children. She said that her 2-year-old son still asks her to walk to the airport, hoping to see his sister and brother.
“We’re still getting used to being so quiet in the house, and it’s so empty, but then I know it’s going to be worth it,” May said. “I keep telling myself that these days will be worth it; their education is more important.”