When a school closes in rural Alaska, families who stay face tough choices. They can send their children away to school in another village or city, or they can home school their kids. Clark’s Point fought for a third option, to reopen their school. The school, which closed in 2012, will be back in session next week.
Clark’s Point is one of two schools in the Southwest Region School District that was closed because it did not meet the 10-student minimum enrollment set by the state. Portage Creek is the other. The school at Portage Creek has been closed since 2005. That village is now largely a summer fishing community with an official year round population of two. Clark’s Point saw its population decline as well after its school closed.
“It was kind of sad. A lot of kids left, a lot of families left,” Clark’s Point resident George Ramondos said.
This year, however, the village saw a brief window of opportunity. The village council heard from residents that they wanted to see the school reopened. As the council explored the option, enough families committed to bringing their children back to Clark’s Point to meet the minimum enrollment.
“I’d hear that people wanted back, but they would say, ‘There aren’t jobs. There isn’t a school. If there was housing.’ Suddenly these things are opening up, and apparently they really meant what they said—‘If these things existed, this is the place in the world we’d want to be,’” village administrator Danielle Aikins said.
13 students are registered for this school year. Aikins said it is unlikely the village could have met the minimum enrollment if the process had been put off another year. At least two families, a significant number in a village of 63 people, told the council that they would move if no school opened in the fall.
“We assumed that if we didn’t get the school this year that our village couldn’t sustain itself. That is the impact of not having a school. You don’t get new people wanting to move in because there’s not a school for their children, and you have people having to leave,” Aikins said.
With the headcount in place, the village initiated a conversation with Southwest Region School District. They needed to hire staff and find a new building. Using the old school building was not an option because it needs to be renovated to meet current building code.
“It’s the heart of the community,” Steve Noonkesser, the associate superintendent of the Southwest Region School District, said. “When they came to us and said they came to us and told us they had students and that it was possible to reopen based on the numbers, I think it was more a question of how fast we can do this and how to put the pieces together.”
After a year of working with the school district and other area agencies, the school is set to open on August 21.
Clark’s Point received a block grant from the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation for a modular school building. It was delivered to the village in two pieces. The goal is to have it assembled and utilities connected in time for the first day of school. If construction is delayed, however, classes will be held initially in the village council building.
The teacher and principal, Shannon Harvilla, arrived from Florida in July. The residents’ enthusiasm and effort were obvious to him even as they communicated with him before his arrival about plans for the school year.
“The kids are excited. The parents are excited. They’ve missed the school tremendously, and it’s just a giant accomplishment to see the hard work of the village come together. They say it takes a village to raise a kid. It took the village to raise a school and bring it back,” Harvilla said.
Members of the community describe the school’s reopening as a dream come true. One said that she and her grandson were packing to leave the village so that he could start school elsewhere when word came that the Clark’s Point School would reopen.
Josephine Ingram’s children were living in Anchorage. She moved them to Clark’s Point last week.
“I’m glad for my kids to be able to come experience picking the berries and looking forward to the moose hunt coming up and the skiff rides, all of that. They’re going to be learning about their culture also,” Ingram said. She said she would have kept her kids in school in Anchorage had Clark’s Point School not opened.
In speaking with Clark’s Point residents, it becomes clear that the school is more than an institution of learning; it is a lifeline for a small community. It has given families with children more incentive to stay, and jobs at the school doubled the number of regular, full-time positions available in the village. Clark’s Point has cleared many hurdles to reopen their school, and they are certain to face more as the school year kicks off. Parents and community members describe many reasons why they want to stay in Clark’s Point and raise their children there – subsistence opportunities, quiet atmosphere and close proximity to family.
“This is home,” longtime resident Diane Tennyson said.