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Tenakee Springs struggles to keep small school open

Posted: July 18, 2013 - 10:40pm  |  Updated: July 19, 2013 - 12:11am
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The Tenakee school is a relatively large facility. It has three classrooms, a commercial-grade kitchen and a library.   Jennifer Canfield | Juneau Empire
Jennifer Canfield | Juneau Empire
The Tenakee school is a relatively large facility. It has three classrooms, a commercial-grade kitchen and a library.

TENAKEE SPRINGS — The school in Tenakee Springs needs to double its enrollment by July 31 — or face closure. It’s not a new problem for the tiny Southeast community, which has about 60 year-round residents, but the issue is coming to a head and making at least one resident reconsider whether the school is sustainable.

At the heart of the matter are two families who’ve chosen to homeschool, taking four kids off the school’s enrollment. Another family with three children recently left the community. Complicating things further is Tenakee’s history of importing kids to meet the state’s 10-student minimum for full funding, only to have some leave after 30 days. The shortage of young people is bringing other questions for the community to address, but the most pressing issue for some is simply keeping the school open.

The place

Residents in Tenakee are connected by a dirt trail that’s lined with 8-foot tall salmonberry bushes. A slow walk from the seaplane dock to the school, on the other side of town, takes no more than 10 minutes — leaving plenty of time to greet neighbors and pick a few berries. The community maintains a beautifully renovated bathhouse, which is powered by natural hot springs. Cars are outlawed in Tenakee. Bicycles equipped with baskets and the occasional 4-wheeler are the main forms of transportation. There are no long driveways or oversized lots. Homes along the community’s main drag are no more than a stone’s throw away from the next one. The school sits on top of a hill, away from the trail, overlooking Tenakee Inlet.

Many of the town’s homeowners are snowbirds or weekenders from Juneau. The local population tips over a hundred in the summer. A few tourists make their way to the town by ferry or seaplane. There’s no property tax in Tenakee and the city has relatively little income. Some locals make their living logging, fishing, telecommuting or working for the city, which is currently hiring for a part-time clerk and a part-time planner. The school is the largest employer, with seven employees — all part-time except for the teacher, who is a full-time employee and tenured with Chatham School District. 

The people

Chris and Darius Mannino first visited Tenakee in 1996 when they were both in their mid-20s. They lived in New York at the time; Chris worked as a grant writer in the arts and Darius as an actor. During a vacation through the Inside Passage, they fell in love with Tenakee and made plans for an extended stay.

“We thought we’d stay for a month,” Chris said. “That turned into two years.”

The Manninos eventually left Tenakee for Juneau where they lived for five years before moving to Los Angeles. They traveled the world together and occasionally returned to Tenakee. After eight years in Southern California, Chris learned that she was pregnant.

“We had a very wonderful surprise at age 40 and so we decided we wanted to move back,” Chris said. “This was the kind of place we wanted to raise our daughter in.”

When their daughter, Ila Wren, was 1 year old, the couple made the move. They leased and eventually purchased the Party-Time Bakery, which is one of two restaurants in town. The bakery mostly caters to fishermen and tourists in the summer and is closed for winter.

“We had already lived here, so we knew we were ready to come and invest in the community,” Chris said.

To keep the school open, a family would have to forego comprehensive planning and throw caution to the wind. It’s a risky proposition for a family to move to a community with virtually no jobs, no rental market and often no homes for sale.

“As far as I know, we’ve never not been able to find housing for a family who wants to experience Tenakee,” Chris said. “Certainly there are people out there, like us, who love the lifestyle.”

The school

The school was built in 1987 at a cost of $3 million. There were more than 20 students in Tenakee at the time and many more were expected because of favorable logging prospects, which didn’t pan out as expected.

The school has three classrooms, a commercial-grade kitchen, an administrative office and an activity room that’s used for everything from informal pre-school sessions to music lessons led by the local band.

Currently, there are only five students enrolled to attend school this fall. Usually the school would have to meet its enrollment requirement by June 30, but a few members of the community— including teacher Anne Connelly — asked the school board for an extra month to find more students.

“One fishing family comes in with a couple of kids and things change,” Connelly said. “This has always been part of the struggle for some of our families.”

The struggle is harder now than it’s ever been. The district has pulled from its reserves twice before to keep the school open when enrollment dropped to nine students.

With only three local students enrolled and two more signed up through a foreign exchange program, the district will be hard-pressed to fund the gap. Connelly said they’ve found ways to keep the school open before.

“We used to have a family in Oregon that came for the fall quarter for several years,” Connelly said. “(The student) got into a specialized school and so now she can’t come.”

Another family visiting Tenakee as tourists a few years ago was convinced by locals to move to town permanently. The family now lives in one side of the school’s duplex. The duplex — also called the teacherage — was built as housing for teachers, but the district has allowed the community to offer it as a rental to families willing to move to Tenakee for the sake of boosting enrollment.

Part of the sell, Connelly said, is the quality of education in Tenakee. She said several students with poor academic records have moved to Tenakee and thrived.

“Within the school, the kids have one-on-one attention. Every child has their curriculum designed for them,” Connelly said. “By the time they graduate from here they’re strong, very self-aware and they have a good head on them.”

The dissent

For Shelly Wilson, the decision to disenroll her three children did not come easily. Wilson served on the Chatham School board — she was one of three members recalled in November 2007 — and worked as a teacher’s aide from 2008 to 2011. She has a daughter who graduated in Tenakee and her other three children have been enrolled in the school until now.

Wilson said in an email that she’d been thinking about homeschool for several years. She registered her three girls for homeschool last summer but changed her mind after a family had been recruited to move to Tenakee. Wilson said the yearly worry over whether the school would be open became too much to bear after she started asking questions in April.

“I had asked a member of our advisory school board if he thought we would have enough students to keep the school open this upcoming year. He couldn’t give me an answer,” Wilson wrote. “An advisory school board meeting was called a few days later to address this issue. Neither the advisory school board nor the local representative to our regional board could address the issue regarding enrollment with an answer that was satisfactory.”

Wilson then learned that the Chatham Schools superintendent was going to recommend to the school board that the school be closed if at least 10 students were not enrolled by the extended deadline.

“I knew that getting my family ready to take on homeschooling would take some time and that I couldn’t wait until August to suddenly jump into homeschool for three children. I had to do it at that moment,” Wilson wrote. “I was mentally ready to take on this new adventure, and staving off this decision was only going to make it harder for my family.”

After Wilson made her plans known, another family took their student out.

The administration

Chatham Schools Superintendent Dr. Scott Butterfield would have preferred the deadline for enrollment to have remained June 30.

“We could have started getting through the state requirements to get the resources needed for the kids to (go through correspondence courses),” Butterfield said in a phone interview. “Even (correspondence is) a bit of a challenge because the state requires a teacher to be available to meet with the students and a correspondence student gets only 80 percent of the funding that a regular student does.”

Butterfield takes issue with some of the tactics used to keep the school open. He said that it’s not ethical for the school to bring in students only to have them leave after 30 days.

“You can’t have kids that are there just for the count period,” Butterfield said. “Legitimately we should be having those kids at the school for the whole year.”

Butterfield said that the district has done what it can to be supportive of Tenakee. Chatham Schools is currently subsidizing the rent for two of the three remaining students by allowing a family to live in the teacherage, he said. Renovations are ongoing in the unoccupied unit and the community is hopeful that if a family commits to moving that construction can be completed in time for the new school year. As far as the district is concerned, that might not be an option. Butterfield said the district has already committed 25 percent of its available budget — about $125,000— to putting a new roof on the Angoon school.

“I don’t know where all that money would come from to continue the renovation on the Tenakee Springs teacherages,” Butterfield said. “We’re still waiting to hear back from the auditor as to how much money we have left for that kind of thing.”

Because there is no trail or road up to the school, all construction materials have to be hand carried up several long flights of stairs. Butterfield said the community has been great about meeting the ferry for deliveries and transporting the materials up to the site, but that might not be enough.

“Even though Tenakee wants some of those (renovations) done for continued use, they don’t seem to want to do some of the labor work gratis to make it happen,” Butterfield said.

If the school closes, the district would be responsible for maintaining the building for two years. The town’s repeaters for public television and radio are powered through the school. If the school remained closed for two years, the cash-strapped City of Tenakee would then become responsible for the building.

The bigger picture

What would losing the school mean for the residents of Tenakee? Six people would lose their jobs and the teacher would likely transfer to another site. Still, can a community be whole without a school? Many residents in Tenakee said they couldn’t imagine the town without one.

Darius Mannino — whose wife Chris sees the town as an adventure for the right people — said his family is in Tenakee for the long haul. The couple thinks it’s the perfect place for their daughter to grow up.

“It would be nice if the school could be part of that, but there’s so much more involved. There’s the personal choices of some families and there’s also the responsibility of the district,” Darius said. “It’s so funny. You think you’re really isolated out here, but you’re not.”

In the big cities where the Manninos previously lived, a family’s personal choice had very little effect on the community around them. While Darius admits that it brings out a lot of fear for him to think about the school closing, he also sees Tenakee as the kind of place where people have to be more independent. If that means there aren’t enough students to keep the school open because some parents would rather home school, so be it. He still wonders if maybe there are deeper issues that need to be addressed in order to have good education opportunities for Tenakee’s youth.

“There’s all this energy being poured into keeping the school open by having enough kids, but the complexity of it requires us to find the right people who are committed to living in a small community,” Darius said. “I think this is kind of forcing the community’s hand, which is scary, but it could be opening up an opportunity for a different kind of education system that’s more appropriate for us.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.n.canfield@juneauempire.com.

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