The school in Tenakee Springs has less than a month to double the size of its student body or risk closing. School board members in the small Southeast city are hoping families will move to town and boost the numbers. If the school closes, Tenakee’s population may drop further as the few remaining students and their families look elsewhere for an education.
Tenakee Springs is nestled into the side of a fjord on Chichagof Island, about 50 miles north of Sitka. You can only get there by plane or boat. It has a general store, a bathhouse, some lodges, a harbor, a seaplane base and — depending on the time of year — between 50 and 150 residents. Of those residents, five are enrolled in the local public school for next year. The problem?
“We need 10 students in order to be considered a school under state law,” said Shawna Harper, a Tenakee resident whose 16-year-old son is entering his senior year at the K-12 school.
Harper is also on the regional school board that will make the decision whether to keep the school open. In many ways, the stakes of keeping a school open are higher here than in other less remote parts of the country.
“We cannot just put our child on a bus and send them to another school in another district that’s close by, especially in Tenakee because we are so remote,” she said. “The students have no other alternative other than to move out of the community or home school or take some sort of correspondence school.”
When a school in Alaska dips below 10 students, it starts losing state funding. Sometimes all at once, sometimes over a period of three years. It’s up to districts to make the decision whether to close. The Chatham School District, to which Tenakee Springs belongs, has been in this position before. Harper says twice in the last 20 years Tenakee’s student population has been low enough to consider closing. Both times, the board voted to keep the school open and draw money from its reserves.
“But in those other two instances, we’ve had nine students,” she said.
Five students is a wider gap that might be harder to bridge. And if the school closes, “we would look at going to Gustavus, because it is in the district,” Harper said.
The potential exodus of families from Tenakee is just one of the factors that worries residents like Darius Mennino.
“My wife and I first came to Tenakee in 1996,” Mennino said. “We were here for maybe three years, then we were back and forth between here and Juneau.”
They came back to Tenakee about two and a half years ago.
“Well, we had a daughter, and we wanted to raise her here,” he said.
Her name is Ila, and she’s three. Mennino says he and his wife want Ila to grow up in a community with “generational diversity” — a mix of old and young residents.
“Each of those groups interacts with each other, and that to me makes a rich community,” he said. “That’s one of the unique parts of Tenakee. The kids have always had to learn to talk to the adults, and talk to the older members of the community, and vice versa.”
So, one worry is the social and cultural impact the school’s closure might have. Another concern is the economy.
With seven employees, Tenakee School is the city’s largest employer. It’s also the largest consumer of utilities in Tenakee Springs.
Gordon Chew, who chairs the smaller advisory school board in Tenakee, says they’ve tried a lot of things in the past to keep the school population high. They’ve reached out to families in surrounding communities. They’ve advertised in magazines and newspapers. The school even tried to attract foreign exchange students, but that didn’t pan out.
“The program we were working with found out very late in our enrollment period that we didn’t have a hospital, and their program did not allow their foreign exchange students to be so far away from a primary medical facility,” Chew said.
So now, they’re trying to spread the news that the school enrollment is low, in hopes someone will move their family to Tenakee Springs and boost the numbers. Chew says that’s not as farfetched as it sounds.
“It’s happened numerous times before,” he said. “Some of our greatest assets right now are people that moved here and stayed. We had a family of five move (to Tenakee) a couple years ago from Juneau. They stayed as long as they could, but they had to move on. We just don’t seem to have any aces in the hole this year.”
Chew says the situation is dire. But like any Hail Mary pass, you just hope the ball lands in the right place.
“Like selling anything, you just have to get the word to the right person,” he said. “And you never know how that’s going to happen.”
They have until the end of July. Then, the superintendent of the Chatham School District makes a recommendation on whether to close the school. The board is expected to make its decision Aug. 6.