Failing rural high schools force hard choices on parents

Third and final column in a series

Alaska's smallest high schools lag academically, well behind similar schools that are a bit larger. It's time for those tiny communities to reconsider what's best for their kids.

In 1976, the Molly Hootch settlement ended Alaska's dark boarding school era with a decree that the state must provide high schools in every community with at least 15 students. For a generation with dreadful memories of being taken away for schooling, the decision ended a great injustice.

[As an elder recalls abuse, the horror of Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools lives on]

[Apology, forgiveness and the hope to remake failing rural schools]

Today, the Alaska Legislature provides funding for schools with as few as 10 students. Our constitution requires the state to provide a system of public schools and a series of court decisions have defined what that promise means. No one should force communities to close small schools, and unless the courts agree, no one can.

The cost of running small schools is insignificant in the state budget. Last fall Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, said she would try to close 60 schools with fewer than 20 students, saving $7 million — two tenths of a percent of the deficit. The Legislature spends 10 times as much on its own 60 members.


Gattis' proposal provoked terror and protest in rural Alaska. Closing schools kills villages. Without a school, young families leave and the remaining population ages, unreplaced. And the school is often the largest employer, providing the little cash flowing into some of America's poorest communities.

Gattis isn't coming back. She was defeated in the primary election in August. But the idea won't go away. Some urban and suburban legislators — many of whom have no experience of rural Alaska — cannot comprehend why areas with scant population need their own school districts and schools that, necessarily, have much better student-teacher ratios than their own constituents' schools.

It's an ugly kind of envy. I've never understood why the privileged resent help for the needy.

But are these schools serving students? After all, schools are for students — they're not for propping up dying communities.

At the elementary and even the middle school level, a one-room schoolhouse may be ideal. If the teacher has been trained to work with multi-age classrooms, he or she can probably provide more individual attention in a 10-student school than a teacher can in a single-subject, single-age Anchorage high school classroom with 29 students.

But a good high school education should take students to a high level in various subjects of which no one teacher can have mastery. Tiny high schools do not have teachers qualified in all the subjects they teach — English, math, social studies, science, foreign languages, art. How could they?

Attending high school without classmates also takes away one of the strongest drives for achievement, positive peer pressure. High school kids, more than anyone, compare themselves to others. We all learn better in an environment of peers.

In 2013, Alaska had 71 schools with fewer than 10 high school students. At least 10 of those schools had only one high school student.

These students tend to suffer academically.

I looked at data from 2015 state standardized testing in 10th grade English. I compared only true Bush schools, excluding all schools on the road system or with frequent ferry service, and leaving out boarding or correspondence schools. Schools with fewer than five students in 10th grade (nearly 100 schools) were not included in the data I was given for reasons of student confidentiality.

The result: Schools with six to 10 students in 10th grade had substantially lower scores. Among those 36 schools, 22 schools had 60 percent or more of their students scoring at the lowest level of achievement. Among the 37 larger rural schools, 17 were in that low group. The only variable was the size of the schools.

I think including the 100 tiniest schools would have made the result even more dramatic. Other research has found size matters in Alaska high school test scores, graduation rates and other measures.

It's not surprising. Imagine being the only high school student in your grade, trying to take all your subjects from a teacher who is also teaching every subject to kids of every grade. Maybe you do math through a computer with a distance learning program — but many villages have slow, shaky internet service.

Besides, what kind of amazing student can learn algebra from a computer without anyone to work along with? Most of us couldn't do it.

I worked with a nonprofit organization that persuaded the Legislature to fund programs that invite village high school students to hub communities for a short period of boarding to attend high school. Those village students usually do just as well as the students from larger communities — when they have qualified teachers and fellow students studying the same content.

Of course. All kids have ability.

It's up to rural communities to decide what's best for their kids. Many families already are choosing. Alaska's four state-funded, full-time boarding schools have over 900 students, mostly coming from small communities. By comparison, high schools with enrollment of 30 or less have only 1,400 students total.


Unfortunately, every time a parent decides on boarding school for a student, the village school gets a bit smaller and less viable for those who remain.

Schools should mean something different for each community. We transmit our culture and values through generations by what we teach in schools — not only in skills, but how we teach and what we hold up as good. Education molds society. It is self-determination.

Some rural Alaskans may decide that what teens learn in their villages, with their families, is most important. I can understand that. I wouldn't part with my kids after middle school.

But for village Alaska, that decision comes with a cost. Many of these tiny schools do not serve their high school students well. When some of those students become adults, they won't have the same choices as kids just like them who grew up in larger communities.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.