The Yakov E. Netsvetov School in Atka has struggled with low enrollment in recent years.
But this month, 10 students showed up for the first day of classes, helping the school avoid a shutdown — and hinting at greater stability for the small Unangax community in the western Aleutian Islands.
“First day of school!” announced teacher Sonja Mills as the school bell rang. “We did it!”
On one side of the building, the high schoolers set up their laptops for a science lesson. On the other, the sole kindergartner used a puzzle to practice his ABCs.
Outside, a trio of elementary girls even shook pom-poms while rehearsing a cheer they’ve written for their school: “A-T-K-A! Atka!”
The energy and excitement of the new year was palpable. But according to Mills, it almost didn’t happen.
“We were so fortunate to have a family move in with four kids that were school-aged, and we had another kid come up into kindergarten,” she said. “So we have the required 10 kids to keep the school open.”
Without those five new students, enrollment would have been below the state minimum for the second year in a row.
The school’s funding would have been cut in half, and the Aleutian Region School District would have had to consider shutting it down.
“Without the school, the kids can’t stay here. If the kids can’t stay here, the families can’t stay here,” Mills said. “And you have families that are having children — and families that have been connected to this island and this community and this life for many, many generations.”
In rural Alaska, several communities have faded following school closures — from King Island in the 1970s to Portage Creek in the 2000s.
That possibility has weighed heavily on Atka’s tight-knit community of about 70 people, whose small economy is based on subsistence and some commercial fishing.
“I like to go hiking and on walks on the beach. I like it here,” said 12-year-old student Makarius Swetzof. “The only problem, I would say, is the low population.”
On the one hand, Swetzof said having fewer students means more trust from the teacher, as well as more help and attention. But on the other, it means he was the only kid his age on the island last year.
Swetzof has some younger siblings, cousins, and neighbors. But he didn’t really have friends to play pranks on or study with — until the arrival of four brothers from the Norton Sound community of St. Michael.
“I am very much looking forward to the fact of hanging out with people my own age,” said Swetzof. “First of all, I don’t have to take hikes by myself anymore. Also playing dodgeball! Because I am very good in dodgeball.”
The new boys are middle and high schoolers, and they all felt too shy for an interview. But as the first gym period of the year got underway, they dove right into a game of dodgeball with Swetzof and the other students.
“Boys! Don’t bean the girls so hard!” shouted Mills. “It’s time to clean up!”
With the day wrapping up, parents arrived to pick up their kids, and they said they were happy to see the building so lively.
Crystal Dushkin grew up attending Atka’s school. Now, she has two daughters in the elementary grades and a baby at home.
“Those kids love going to school every day,” said Dushkin. “It’s a huge deal for my family. For all of us out here. You know, just trying to think about what Plan B was going to be if it didn’t go through …”
Atka has several kids preschool-aged and younger, so Dushkin said she has high hopes that enrollment will stay steady in the years to come.
If it doesn’t, her family will consider homeschooling. But if it does, she said her kids will get to enjoy all of the good things that come with the small school: the close relationships, the lessons connected to local culture, and the tradition of doing an outdoor activity every Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s a unique way, and I think it suits our village lifestyle,” said Dushkin. “Our kids do really well. They learn a lot. So I don’t think you have to be in a big school to have your kids get a really good education.”
Mills said everyone in Atka is excited that education will continue this year.
She said the school will welcome a second teacher later this month so they can divvy up the eight different grade levels. They’ll plan for more partner work and team games now that they have enough students. And they may even start a small school garden — something that’s long been under discussion, but delayed due to the past uncertainty.
“I just see the school getting more solid,” said Mills. “I think it’s going to be a really good year.”