Opinions

The Copper Valley School’s legacy continues

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Copper Valley School, the first integrated boarding school in Alaska. Located near Glennallen, “Copper,” as many referred to it, aimed to prepare its students to become the next generation of leaders in Alaska.

In a time when Alaska village schools were understaffed and high school availability was limited, many parents chose to send their children away from home for a high-quality education. Both Native and non-Native, Catholic and non-Catholic, village and city students attended Copper. While schools throughout the country were still grappling with integration, Copper welcomed Aleut, Athabascan, Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and white students, as well as several students from Africa. To this day, several alumni claim that the merging of cultures was a success of the school, allowing students to learn to appreciate other backgrounds and cultures and work with one another in collaborative ways. One former student recently described the school as a “mini-United Nations.” Many students made lifelong friendships, and the school’s alumni organization, the Copper Valley Student Association (CVSA), continues to connect former students.

The school had a remarkable beginning. In the 1940s, Father Buchanan, a young Jesuit priest, began serving in western Alaska. As he traveled throughout his 74,000-square-mile parish, he realized the need for a Catholic school in the area and dreamt of opening a school that would prepare Alaska Natives for leadership positions. As his vision attracted attention, the U.S. Congress provided a land grant of 460 acres at the junction of the Copper and Tazlina Rivers, south of Glennallen, for educational purposes. A Jewish architect provided plans for the school without charge. To help with the school’s construction, a variety of businesses donated materials or provided them at cost. Donations came from throughout the country. Even Bing Crosby donated a truck to the school.

On Oct. 13, 1956, Alaska Airlines launched Operation Snowbird, an effort to ferry students from Holy Cross, the site of one of the original Catholic missions and home to a closing Catholic school, to Copper. Holy Cross students joined others from across Alaska at the newly opened school. Seventy students and staff were at the school in its first winter, living and learning in the unfinished facility. Upon the school’s completion several years later, Copper featured classrooms, dormitories, staff quarters, a cafeteria, a gym and a chapel. Enrollment peaked at more than 150 in the late 1960s.

The school offered a rigorous Catholic education, led by the Sisters of Saint Ann and Jesuit priests, Scholastics and Brothers. Lay volunteers from throughout the country rounded out the staff -- filling teaching, administrative and maintenance positions. Educational expectations were high: Teachers challenged students to build their art, mathematics and writing skills. Students from Copper regularly participated in academic competitions, such as debate tournaments, with other regional schools. Each weeknight, students had mandatory study hall, with individual tutoring available. The boarding school environment also served to build community as the students worked together on school tasks.

In addition to schoolwork, each student had assigned chores: washing dishes, peeling potatoes, plucking chickens, hunting and butchering caribou (and the occasional buffalo), cleaning bathrooms, buffing floors, hauling garbage or unloading coal. The school also offered a variety of extracurricular activities, including Civil Air Patrol, basketball, track and skiing. Students could join various organizations such as Sodality of Our Lady of Sorrows, Glee Club, Library Club, Hobby Club, Movie Club, Pep Club and others. When they needed to escape, students took long expeditions on trails through the school site’s hundreds of acres, walked the mile to Brenwick’s store to buy candy and sodas, or took weekend expeditions, trekking the six miles to Rosent’s at the Hub if they craved a hamburger and milkshake.

The school closed in 1971, owing to a combination of financial struggles and shifts in diocesan priorities. In the environment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, parents had also begun to question the value of sending their children away to boarding schools and were working to establish village high schools (a right later affirmed in the “Molly Hootch” case in 1976), reducing the need for boarding schools across the state. After the school’s closing, the church explored several options for the massive facility. The diocese eventually sold it at auction to a group of local businessmen, who were considering turning the facility into a shopping mall before the school burned down in 1976.

Copper students’ experiences were not universally positive. One study found two incidents of abuse. The rigorous Catholic education allowed little room for traditional Alaska Native education; as a result, several Native students struggled to maintain their connections with their Native cultures, a problem some alumni continue to grapple with today. Students wrestled with homesickness and loneliness.

Nonetheless, Copper’s focus on education and the strong community of both students and staff provided a protective layer for most students. Many alumni think highly of the Copper Valley School, stating that their education and experiences at the school prepared them for their future careers in the military, education, politics, nursing, corporate management, and other professions. Some Native graduates went on to serve as leaders within the state, their village communities, and the Native Corporations established by ANCSA.

Students made lifelong friendships during their time at the school, not only among the students but also between the students and staff. In an effort to foster these friendships, in 1985, Theresa “Tiny” Demientieff Devlin started an alumni newsletter called “The Scuttlebutt” in honor of the school’s newsletter of the same name. In 1986, alumni organized to meet for a reunion, a tradition that carries on to this day. Alumni have come from across Alaska, Canada, the Lower 48, and Australia. The annual reunion has served as a forum for friends to reconnect, sit around a bonfire, reminisce, share a meal and remember those who have passed away. Former staff also attend these reunions, and alumni often thank them for their teaching, dedication and inspiration. In 1993, alumni formed the nonprofit Copper Valley School Association. The association has supported scholarships and raised funds to bring guests, such as former teachers, priests and students, to reunions.

Believing that the school holds an important role in Alaska’s education history and has had a significant impact on Alaska’s history in general, CVSA is sponsoring two research projects at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). The Arctic and Northern Studies (ACNS) program at UAF is an interdisciplinary program that studies the history, policy, culture and other issues related to the Arctic and the Circumpolar North. CVSA is sponsoring a graduate student researcher in the ACNS program. This student, Elizabeth Klemm, is currently researching Copper’s legacy and will write a historical narrative of the school. CVSA is also working with UAF’s Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives (APRCA) to archive documents related to the school.

If you attended Copper Valley School or otherwise have information about Copper that you would like included in the history, please contact Elizabeth Klemm at CVSlegacy@gmail.com.

Elizabeth Klemm lives in Anchorage and is a graduate student in Arctic and Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Stephen Gemmell lives in Fairbanks and is the president of Copper Valley Student Association. Brandon Boylan, Ph.D., lives in Fairbanks and is an associate professor of Political Science and the director of the Arctic and Northern Studies Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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