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Alaska's Bush Schools Offer Many Learning Opportunities, But Also Challenges - 2003-06-04

This is graduation season here in United States as children complete another school year. Reporter Mike Osborne recently attended a graduation ceremony on Alaska's Kodiak Island. An hour's flight south of Anchorage, Kodiak is the size of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus but is home to just 14,000 people, a good place to observe the challenges of educating children in America's last frontier.

I'm strapped in to a tiny bush plane for the last leg of my journey, a short flight to the village of Larsen's Bay on Kodiak Island's southwest coast. A breathtaking 30-minute hop takes me over fjord-like bays, dark green forests and snow covered 1500-meter mountain peaks. Home to about one hundred people, Larsen's Bay consists of a few dozen homes clustered around a fish cannery and gravel airstrip. I'm here to attend graduation ceremonies at the public school, and it looks like the entire town has turned out for the event.

As the program begins about twenty children march in, the entire student body I soon learn, ranging in age from six to fourteen. The kids are all wearing Alaska native costumes, outfits they've made while studying the local Aluetiq culture. They perform a number of Aluet dances.

Four students are graduating today. Three are moving on from kindergarten to the first grade while one is advancing to high school. The program includes awards, speeches, and proud parents taking lots of pictures. But behind all the smiles is a great deal of concern. Educating children in such a remote place is difficult. Kodiak schools superintendent Betty Walters, who has also flown in for the graduation, says hiring teachers is relatively easy, but keeping them is something else, again. There are only three teachers at Larsen's Bay and two will not be returning next fall.

"People are looking for adventure, often, when they come to Alaska. And we're actually looking for people who are interested in teaching children so there are a few challenges there," she said. "They can certainly have a life and have some of the wonderful outdoor experience, but we want them to be interested in kids first."

Many of these imported teachers find the isolation more than they can handle. Rochelle Reed came here from Wisconsin, but couldn't make the adjustment and won't be staying. She worries the school's children also suffer from the isolation.

"Maybe not all the kids can verbalize it, but not having a lot of friends of the same age group is very challenging," she said. "It's so important to help develop just ways of knowing how to be with people and how to treat people and how to have friends."

These so-called "bush schools" also provide few opportunities for extra curricular activities. Sports, social events and cultural offerings are all scarce. But, says Superintendent Walters, American universities expect to see such activities listed on a student's college application.

"We have to fly off-island for a basketball game," she said. "The logistics are interesting. The time away from the classroom is also an impact and one that I am greatly concerned about, but that's a major part of our budget."

Kodiak students aren't the only ones who travel frequently. The state school system flies itinerant teachers like Sally Wilker out to the villages to provide specialized instruction.

"There are eight villages here on Kodiak," she said. "One of them is accessible by road. The rest of them you can only get to by float plane, small plane or boat. I usually go for seven to ten days at a time to the villages."

What she teaches during that time represents one of the advantages of attending school in Alaska. The state's rich native cultures provide a valuable educational tool. Ms. Wilker recently had her students recreate an ancient Aluet hunting spear to teach more modern skills.

"We designed and conducted experiments with them looking at the velocity of the spears, what affects that velocity, the difference between tangential velocity and angular velocity," she explained. "I really try to bring to life some of the math and science that's embedded in that technology and connect it to their regular academics."

Another advantage is small class sizes. Students at Larsen's Bay get lots of personalized instruction. But perhaps best of all, according to teacher Rochelle Reed, Alaskan students have easy access to one of the world's most remarkable living laboratories.

"I don't know any other kids anywhere in the world that get to, like, leave school for part of the day and go down to the beach and try to find an octopus," she said. "There are so many environmental things that we can bring in, and it's flexible. I mean the kids show an interest in something or we're doing something and the kids are like 'Oh, that's really cool,' we really have the option to take things as far as we want."

But on Kodiak Island there's always the possibility that the lesson could actually go further than teachers or students might want. While I was visiting Larsen's Bay, townsfolk were talking about a bear wandering around the village, apparently a fairly common occurrence.