Families flee following rural Alaska school closings

What politicians are missing is that school closures leave students without educational resources and lessens the community as a whole putting them at risk. As adults flee these communities, the community lose business investors as there is decreasing employee pools and consumers. 

Sandy King hugs her son Matt Lopez, 12, before he boards a plane to move from Cold Bay on July 17, 2015. Matt's father Jorge Lopez, left, and brother, Zenny, right, are moving to California. King planned to join them there soon, she said. Since the Cold Bay school closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year, several residents have moved away or are planning to relocate soon. (Image courtesy of "The last kid in Coldbay" by Alaska Dispatch news https://www.adn.com/features/alaska-news/rural-alaska/2016/12/22/the-last-kid-in-cold-bay/

JUNEAU, Alaska, August 8, 2017 — Low enrollment numbers are causing many Alaska schools to close. Since the late 90s, at least two public schools have closed each year.

The two schools closing this year were identified as New Horizons High School and St. George School, located on St. George Island, in the Bering Sea.



Ruby Oatman stands in front of St. George School, where she used to teach. (Pribilof School District )

The state education system announced the schools were closing their doors due to a drop in enrollments. A minimum of 10 students, enrolled by October 1, is required to receive state funding and keep the school open.

District Superintendent Brett Agenbroad explained the decision to close the school’s doors. “To open an entire school for less than 10 students doesn’t make financial sense at some point,” Agenbroad said.

Last school year, St. George’s enrollment was at 10, costing the school half its budget. The schools are currently appealing, but if the enrollment continues to fall, they will lose even more state funding.

Some state legislators acknowledged they will likely discuss upping the minimum student count as one of many ways to trim the $1.3 billion education budget. However, none have said they have a specific bill in the works.

Anchorage, Alaska debates later start times for local schools

From the Southwest Alaska village of Twin Hills, teacher Meghan Redmond recently handed out white stickers printed with the line “#smallschoolsmatter.” Her efforts are part of a growing statewide campaign to keep small schools open while lawmakers prepare to wrestle with a multibillion-dollar budget gap.

Redmond said, if legislators increase the minimum student count from 10 to 25, it could lead to the shutdown of about 60 schools, which often serve as the lifeblood of rural villages.

“It’s something that’s being talked about and we don’t want to have to fight for our schools. We don’t want it to even become a bill,” said Redmond, who teaches at a K-8 school with 21 students.

Teachers in the community are disappointed in the closure. The school serves as a location for community events and provides a public library for town residents. The school also offers internet access, which is a prized commodity in the remote community. The library will close when the school shuts down.

The closure will have a deep impact on the village. After closing the school, the district will hand over the property to the state and residents will lose the library and internet access. Funding schools in rural communities comes at a cost, and state leaders question whether it’s worth it. Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says:

“Everything’s on the table and everything’s going to be discussed, from school size to distance delivery to broadband to partnerships with the university where professors might be able to teach the courses. The list goes on and on and on.”

What politicians are missing is that school closures leave students without educational resources and damage the community as a whole as families leave for larger communities with stable school systems. As adults flee these communities for areas where schools are accessible, the community loses businesses. Consumer and employee pools shrink.

Without access to education and the opportunities education brings to these small villages, the state is at risk of losing the some of its cultural tapestry. People in the dying towns are at greater risk of the opiate addiction that is plaguing parts of Ohio, West Virginia, and other areas of the U.S. with shrinking communities.

In the feature article “The last kid in Coldbay,” author Michelle Theriault Boots highlights one family being torn apart by school closings and the impact on the community of Coldbay writing:

“On a blustery afternoon in July, most of the residents of this town at the edge of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands showed up at the one-room airport for another goodbye.

“This farewell was perhaps more significant than the many others that had taken place over the last few years—this time, it was the mayor who was moving away. Jorge Lopez and his 12-year-old twin sons Matt and Zenny were leaving the town of about 60 people.”

The article continues,

“Losing the school can have a profound impact, drawing the very engines of community—families with children—away, sometimes permanently. In regions already struggling with the difficult economics of life in rural Alaska, the closure of a school can feel like a death blow.

“In nearby Nelson Lagoon, where the school had been closed for two years, there was no longer a single child under the age of 18. Cold Bay now finds itself in an impossible situation, locals say. There are job openings, but how can it attract families to accept positions in a remote Alaska Peninsula town accessible only by air or the occasional ferry if there’s no operating school?

“And without new children, how could it ever hope to reopen?”

The state has strong supporters of public education, but now it lacks the ability to completely fund the education system across the state.

Appreciation to  Alaska Dispatch News for their full coverage of this issue.

Lawrence Lease contributed to this report

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