In villages across Alaska, schools are the beating hearts of rural communities. Of course, that’s where kids are educated. But school sites also often provide the only basketball courts and meeting halls around. And, in the Kodiak Archipelago, at least half of the region’s villages are facing losing their schools.
Over the last decade, the Kodiak Island Borough School District’s student population has shrunk by about 200 kids, and that has hit the region’s rural communities especially hard. This year, the district closed its school in Danger Bay because of low enrollment, and it’s almost certainly going to have to do the same for the communities of Port Lions and Karluk the coming school year.
But the village of Larsen Bay is in a particularly precarious spot. It has just enough students to keep its school doors open, but the loss of just one student could shut it down.
As you walk into the Larsen Bay school, some of the faces that make-up the community’s history are there to greet you.
“Look at this wall, this has elders. All the elders that contributed to how this place was built and grown. I mean, where else do you have that,” Sherry Harmes said, pointing to the photos with admiration.
Harmes has lived in Larsen Bay since the early 2000s and is on its city council. She says the community’s been shrinking for awhile and right now there are only about 60 full-time residents.
In the summer the community’s population swells because of commercial salmon fishermen and cannery workers who show up for the salmon season. But Harmes say those people don’t really contribute much to the community.
“Essentially we’re turning into a summer village,” Harmes said.
The town needs at least ten students enrolled in its school next fall to keep it open. If it’s short, the Kodiak Island School District will lose about $300,000 in state funding, and it will close the school.
The school’s current count is 11 students, but one is graduating. So, the community has no wriggle room. If one more student leaves, that’s it. Residents with and without kids are anxiously waiting to see what will happen. Harmes says she doesn’t blame any parent considering leaving town.
“They don’t wanna have the school year start and then all of a sudden there’s no teacher or no classes or anything,” Harmes said. “And, they want to plan ahead.”
Alice Aga is the mayor of Larsen Bay.
“We need to keep everyone here. We need to reassure them that school will be open,” Aga said. “The decision of one person could sink us and that’s a scary thought.”
Aga is dedicated to keeping the school open. But she’s not very optimistic about the community’s future.
“I think if the school closed it really would be like the final blow to Larsen Bay that, you know, we’re really a dying community,” Aga said.
Larsen Bay’s population has been shrinking for decades and Aga, who was born and raised here, thinks that’s partly because the outside world is so enticing.
“The kids that grow up, they don’t want to come back to the village because there’s nothing here for them,” Aga said. “They want to go live in Kodiak or Anchorage, Seattle, you know, go to college and then stay there. They don’t want to come back because they like going to the mall, they like going to the theater, they like going to the grocery store, and, you know, there’s none of that here.”
In the Kodiak region, students in rural schools don’t have the same opportunities as students in more populated areas. Their class sizes can be tiny, and some kids have to take distance learning courses that don’t always allow them to connect with their instructors or peers.
Even though Aga wants the Larsen Bay school to stay open, she recently sent her oldest daughter to live with relatives in the City of Kodiak to go to middle school because Aga wasn’t satisfied with the quality of education her daughter was receiving at the village’s school.
Aga’s conflicted about this choice. On one hand, she’s happy her daughter is enjoying her new school. On the other, she’s worried that if the Larsen Bay school closes, the town will pretty much become a retirement home.
“You know the elders will be the last ones here,” Aga said.
In Aga’s mind, that will be the death of Larsen Bay and that haunts her.
“I’ve cried thinking about this so many times that I just feel like I’m all dried up,” Aga said. “I can’t cry about it anymore.”
The district’s Superintendent made a pledge to community members at a recent meeting that’ll he’ll do everything he can for Larsen Bay. He said right now he’s moving forward as if the Larsen Bay school is staying open. But if there are fewer than ten students next fall, the district will have to move fast to close the school.
The Kodiak Island Borough, which owns all of the district’s current school sites, is in the process of exploring ways communities that lose their schools can still use the buildings. Because around Kodiak, schools aren’t just schools, they’re the center of communities.