Southeast town seeks students to fill school

Tenakee Springs places ad on Craigslist in recruiting effort

Posted: Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In an effort to save their school, the residents of Tenakee Springs have launched an Internet marketing campaign. The item for sale: Tenakee Springs.

"We are looking for a few good families," begins the Craigslist community posting from March 15, written by Gordon Chew of Tenakee Springs, a town with 100 residents on Chichagof Island.

Chew goes on to promote the town as a remote region with natural hot springs, abundant wildlife, outdoor activities and high test scores.

The magic number is 10. That's how many students Tenakee needs next year to stay open. Any fewer and the school won't receive enough money under the state's statutory funding formula. Right now it has seven students enrolled for next year.

Chew is on the advisory school board. His wife, Anne Connelly, is the only teacher. She teaches kindergarten through 12th grade. That translates to one kindergartner, one high school senior and seven students in between.

That gives Tenakee Springs one of the lowest teacher-to-student ratios around, to use another school funding rule of thumb. But it's a mixed bag. Connelly makes a separate lesson plan for each child each day, and as a result works long hours, her husband said. She's an early childhood education specialist who has had to study many other subjects.

Chew said students essentially reach high school graduation equivalency in their sophomore year. And their one-room schoolhouse is a $3 million building with a gym and showers, built when the state was flush with money from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction.

"They did sort of overshoot a little bit," Chew said. "Who knew at the time that we'd lose all our logging, we'd lose all those families, that the fishing would taper off, too."

Now Tenakee residents moonlight for the school in subjects they know. They're used to wearing more than one hat - Cynthia Meyer, for instance, is the librarian and utility meter-reader as well as the volunteer art teacher.

That's part of the charm of this small town, said Shawna Harper.

"Everybody knows everybody. The ferry comes in a couple times a week and people come down to help you unload your goods," she said.

One major obstacle: People need jobs and housing, even in paradise.

"Low-income housing's a real problem. We don't have it," Chew said. "We're working on the housing end right now."

Chew, a carpenter, and others are volunteering to renovate a run-down building owned by the school district where the last teacher lived, hoping to transform it into a rental for a family. They're also looking into whether some of Tenakee's second-homeowners might be willing to rent when they're not in town.

As for employment, Chew wonders if telecommuters may find Tenakee appealing because the town offers high-speed Internet. Hence the Internet ad.

"You know, desperate times," said Chew, who is no computer maven.

Parents are waiting to see what happens. Meyer will consider home-schooling her children, but she'll also consider moving.

The Craigslist ad is new, but the school has been on the edge of losing its funding before. Last year, the children of a fishing family, who lived on a boat, enrolled for several months.

Some residents worry what will happen to the town if the school disappears.

"To me it's pounding the nail in the coffin of a small town, and it will become a bedroom community instead, for Juneau or people down south," Meyer said.

Harper moved her family to Tenakee just so her son, Tucker, could go to school there. She works for the state in Juneau during the week and reunites with her family on the weekends in Tenakee.

"There's nothing better than having science class on the beach," she said. "We made a lot of sacrifices so he could go to school there."

Tenakee's not the only small Alaska school in such a bind. The school in Nikolski, a village in the Aleutians west of Unalaska, averaged 9.8 students in October, and the funding formula doesn't round up. Like Tenakee, it's the second year in a row that the school has had fewer than 10 students.

Aleutian Region Superintendent Joe Beckford, facing halved funding for that school, said he's proposing to close the school next year. The remaining students will likely be home-schooled or enroll in correspondence classes.

Beckford said he doubted a marketing effort like Tenakee's would work for Nikolski.

"You might be able to pull that off in Southeast, but our school is so remote," he said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at

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