Three weeks after the start of the school year, the school in Kivalina finally opened its doors to students. Because of delays and unreliable operations, several students have already left the school this year.
After the new Kisimġiugtuq School about 7 miles inland from Kivalina opened last year, unreliable bus service and weather made it difficult to commute to the newly built facility. This school year, the challenges persisted: The school opening was delayed, first, because of the issues with the city water pump, and later because of the need to test water quality and to fill the water tank, said Kisimġiugtuq School Principal Jeremy Millard.
The school year started on Aug. 22 across the district, but in Kivalina, only on Sept. 12, students boarded new buses and flocked to the school doors to finally begin classes.
“Better than never,” mother of two Josie Adams said. “So exciting!”
The new Kisimġiugtuq School was built at a site where Kivalina residents hope to eventually relocate from a continuously eroding island, battered by the storms. Construction of the school started in the summer of 2020, and the facility opened to 152 students in November 2022.
The school district bought two used buses to transport children from the village site to the new school, but the buses were not running consistently, because of bad weather in November and because of mechanical issues in December, Millard said in winter. The school only had one bus driver last year who was working a rotational shift, so there was no bus service during his days off.
Neither Northwest Arctic School District officials nor Millard responded before Thursday about the total number of days the school building was closed last year or the buses weren’t running.
“We did not cancel any school days as our students did remote learning from their homes,” said Terri Walker, the district’s superintendent.
The officials also didn’t share what the attendance was like last year. However, last winter Millard said that while the community stepped up by driving children to school, bus service interruptions and storms significantly affected student attendance. At the beginning of the school year last year, about 90% of students were coming to school every day, but on some days without a bus, attendance dropped to about 40%, he said back in winter.
New buses arrived in the community for this school year, Walker said.
“We currently have one bus driver and have an open position for one more,” Walker added.
This school year, on Aug. 25, the school officials shared a letter explaining that the beginning of the school year was postponed several days because of the water shortage in the community. However, for two more weeks after that, students were still not in school because the water tank at the school was getting filled and the quality of the water was tested, said Jazmine Camp, executive assistant to the superintendent and Board of Education at the Northwest Arctic Borough School District.
After the work was done, the school spent several days to get all staff to Kivalina.
To compensate for the lost time, last week, Kivalina teachers put together homework packets for the students and delivered them to the village. But without instruction, completing those was a challenge for students, Adams said.
Students leaving the school
Northwest Arctic School District and school officials did not respond before Thursday about the number of students who left the school this year. But some parents shared personal accounts of sending their children to study in schools in other Alaska locations.
“Most families moved to educate their kids elsewhere,” Adams said. “It’s a sad story for our children.”
Resident Janet Mitchell sent her grandson Air Jordan to the Star of the Northwest Magnet School in Kotzebue.
For Mitchell, the decision came from last year’s experience, this year’s delays and overall “knowing how bad things were with the school being so far away.” She said that students had to miss too many school days when the facility was closed during severe storms. On days the 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,” she said.
Eugene Wesley said that both of his daughters now study in Anchorage where they can enjoy more classes to choose from, practice socializing 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. I don’t really associate or talk to people myself, I’m timid, I grew up around few people in the village. So my hopes are, they learn to socialize more than I did.”
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. 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,” she said.
May said that her daughter, Field, likes going to school, so it was important for her to be in a place where the classes were consistent, and she could compete with her schoolmates. In turn, 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.
In Noorvik, the school started on time, so May was happy she made the decision to send her children there. Both Field and Adams seem happy to live and study in Noorvik, she said, but May misses her children. She said that her two-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.”