The Arctic Sounder

Emotions ran high on the first days of school in the Arctic

Five-year-old Colton Conwell felt nervous on his first day of kindergarten. But with his older brother by his side, the fears were easier to conquer.

Multiple schools in the North Slope and Northwest regions opened their doors to students between Aug. 17 and 22. In Kobuk, the year started with a potluck. In Atqasuk, the first few days were followed by a culture camp. And everywhere in the Arctic, the beginning of school meant excitement — including June Nelson Elementary where Colton Conwell came with his mother and brother.

“The most memorable moment was seeing their nervous faces as we stepped foot into the school,” said Dolly Conwell, mother of Colton and Jordan Conwell. “There was just a lot of excitement everywhere.”

Jordan Conwell, 11, reassured his younger brother that he will like kindergarten, especially because he will have the same teacher he did, Dolly Conwell said. She said that as the family walked into the kindergarten classroom, Jordan Conwell was glad to see how his younger brother was greeted with a loud “Hello.”

Kotzebue sisters Eliyah Barr, Adalyn Barr and Krissa Conwell shared waves of excitement for school with each other as well. Eliyah Barr started first grade, Adalyn Barr started second and Krissa Conwell started kindergarten, all at the June Nelson Elementary in Kotzebue on Aug. 22.

“They were counting down the days for school to start, getting so impatient and excited,” their mother Anna Barr said. “After Adalyn started school two years ago, Eliyah and Krissa couldn’t wait to go with her.”

In Kobuk, the first day of school was celebrated with a potluck for the students and parents where they met new teachers and the principal, parent Mariah Gooden said.


For fourth-grader Craig Coffin, the first day of school meant coming back to his friends and family. Last September, he moved to Point Lay with his mother Mariah Gooden and now he has come back to Kobuk to live with his grandfather with whom he has a warm relationship.

“They can’t live without each other,” Gooden said. Plus, she added, “my son Craig was excited (for) school back in Kobuk with his friends.”

Genesis Patkotak was so excited to see her friends and start first grade at Ipalook Elementary in Utqiagvik that she picked the most special outfit she could find: her Halloween dress and her new parka.

“She was so excited for the first day. She didn’t want to leave school just yet,” Florence Nayakik said. “As a parent, I’m super excited for her to finally participate in school activities, like choir, basketball — the things she couldn’t participate in last year as a kindergartner.”

The same was true for Angelica Hopson on her first day of 6th grade at Eben Hopson Middle in Utqiagvik.

“Angelica has always been excited for school, counting the days until it starts,” her mother Darlene Hopson said, “even going to summer school when she didn’t need to.”

Culture camp in Atqasuk

In Meade River School in Atqasuk, the school started on Aug. 17 with a day full of celebration, sharing stories and meeting each other and new teachers, said kindergarten teacher Rod-Patti Lloyd.

“Our day was full of laughter,” Lloyd said.

After the first days of school students started their annual “Classrooms on the Nuna” week where they study on the tundra and learn about the land, Lloyd said. This is the third year the school hosted the event, he said.

Della Segevan said her granddaughter Scarlette Ahkivgak, 6, loved her culture camp experience where she “learned about the land, picked berries, heard stories and ate lunch.”

On one of the school days, a resident shared a caribou catch with the class, and students learned first-hand about animal anatomy and one of the food sources for subsistence hunters, Lloyd said.

“We explored our largest lake, which happens to be our local water source,” Lloyd said about Ikmakrak Lake. “We also enjoyed being outside and playing in the water as we learn.”

From the Top of the World to Colorado

For Utqiagvik-born Benjamin Kaui, school started in a very different place. He received a wrestling scholarship and started studying kinesiology at Adam State University in Alamosa, Colorado.

“Our whole family is so very proud of him!” his mother Dawndee Ipalook said. “Let’s go, son!! Let’s go Grizzlies.”

Kaui started wrestling in middle school and never looked back, Ipalook said. The captain of the high school team during his sophomore year, he also made it to state wrestling all four years of high school and got a second runner-up place in the state finals during his senior year.

This summer, Kaui interned in the Physical Therapy Department at Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital with Nicole Smith and enjoyed the experience, Ipalook said

Now, he can’t wait to further his education in the field, to wrestle at the college level and to enjoy Colorado winter and its snowboarding season, Ipalook said.


“Ben has worked hard to get where he’s at and we can’t be any prouder,” she said. “I know his brothers are very very proud of him.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.