Rural schools in Alaska have an interesting and complicated story. Before 1976, students in most native villages who wanted an education beyond eighth grade attended federal boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Students left their homes and families for nine months out of the year, sometimes traveling thousands of miles away to the lower forty-eight, for a high school education. This was a remnant of the policy of the territory prior to Alaskan statehood; a dual system of schools for white children, which taught traditional academic subjects and BIA-operated rural schools for natives which focused primarily on vocational training and assimilation. The situation was grave for the students and their communities. Students were placed with families in unfamiliar towns with little ability to communicate with home, many villages only having a single phone, and were often treated like servants. And community life too was affected when, every fall the teenagers were all shipped off. If you are from an urban environment, you may think that shipping all the teens off for nine months sounds pretty good, but if you are from a place that depends on subsistence living in a difficult environment, the loss of most of your 15 to 18 year-olds makes a difficult situation considerably harder. Unsurprisingly the high school graduation rate for Alaska natives was terrible: 37% in 1970.
In 1972 Christopher Cooke with Alaska Legal Services filed a class action suit on behalf of 28 children from six Yup'ik villages. The headliner was a fifteen-year-old from Emmonak named Molly Hootch who in 1971 had attended ninth grade in Anchorage, 450 miles from her home. The school (Dimond High) was bigger than her entire village. The suit claimed that the students were denied the right to education guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution, and also suffered racial discrimination. The court dismissed the right to education claim, but allowed the discrimination claim, based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, to continue. Cooke made a good point—it wasn't simply a case of distant, difficult to reach places being poorly served. The state operated secondary schools in other distant places like Adak, Tanana, Thorne Bay, but these were primarily non-native. The situation prior to Molly Hootch reflected the accumulated effects of decades of attempted assimilation often based on federal policies aimed at native communities in the lower forty-eight. As late as 1966 when the state moved forward to consolidate regional schools in the larger towns of rural Alaska they hired Virginia-based Training Corporation of America (TCA) as a consultant. TCA endorsed the continued use of boarding schools with the explicit intent of destroying the village's way of life. The TCA recommended students take up "Residence in urban areas" because it, "appears to accelerate the breakdown of old village patterns, patterns which may retard the development of rural folk into a disciplined and reliable workforce." The state settled the case in 1976 and began building schools in more than one hundred villages. Even Little Diomede, the one place in Alaska where you actually can see Russia, has a school. If you'd like, you can congratulate Dawn and Kristy, their graduating class of 2010. Although education still faces significant challenges in Alaska, the situation has improved: by the 80s the graduation rate was 73%, teens could remain close to home and tradition, locally-elected school boards had more control over the education of their children, and schools could address the significant cultural diversity and unique lifestyles of Alaska.
Two of the plaintiffs in the Molly Hootch case, Elsie Black, 17, and Elsie Agnes Mute, 18, were from Kongiganak where I had the chance to visit a couple weeks ago. I was there to shoot a story for Bezek Durst Seiser, the architects behind Koniganak's new high school. Kongiganak sits on the edge of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, an area of flat, wet tundra roughly the size Oregon. Because water is everywhere, the entire village is built around a system of boardwalks. There are no roads and travel is by four wheeler in the summer, snow machine in the winter, or foot. Most people arrive here an a small plane landing on the village's gravel airstrip. To build anything here is a challenge; to build a large, modern school, complete with gymnasium is a marvel. All the materials need to be shipped up the river on barges and most construction can only happen in the winter (which as you might expect is cold, windy and dark) when the ground is firm enough to support large equipment. Like every structure here, the entire school sits on piles and because the tundra is constantly shifting with the freeze/thaw cycle, all the plumbing into and out of the school is above ground in insulated pipes. And so there it sits rising out of the tundra, an edifice to technology, political will, and hope for social justice.
Here are a few photos of the village and surrounding landscape: