Education Secretary Paige continues tour through Bush Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2003

SAVOONGA - Not many school administrators can say their offices are larger than their homes. The principal of Savoonga's only school can, but he's not bragging.

The lack of housing in this remote St. Lawrence Island village means Dave Bauer has to live at school - in a closet.

"I have room for a mattress and a desk and a chair, and that's it," he said.

Bauer had the opportunity Tuesday to show the challenges of working in rural Alaska to America's highest school official. Education Secretary Rod Paige toured the community to learn how the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping education reform law, will affect rural schools and how it could make life more difficult for people such as Bauer.

The law requires that teachers be "highly qualified," holding a major or a college degree in the subjects they teach. Savoonga's three high school teachers routinely teach outside their specialty because there's no one else to do it.

Bauer hoped to show Paige how difficult it would be to send a child elsewhere if the Savoonga school fails to make adequate yearly progress.

"A student would have to spend $270 to fly to Nome or travel four hours by snowmachine to get to the next village," Bauer said.

Teacher aides, required to obtain associate degrees or take a certain number of credit hours, are working toward that goal but probably need more time and more help in taking classes through distance learning, he said.

But Savoonga's problems start with the facilities. The school is more than 30 years old and falling apart, residents said.

Safe and clean homes are a huge incentive to retaining teachers but Savoonga, like many Alaska rural villages, does not have enough.

"They're just not available in our rural, remote areas," said Shirley Holloway, former state education commissioner.

In the two districts Paige visited this week, teacher turnover approaches 25-30 percent annually, in part due to substandard housing.

"The real goal is to grow more of our own teachers, from the communities, who do have places to live," Holloway said, and who are more likely to stick around.

Bauer is not the only educator living at the school.

"I have a special ed teacher living in the special ed room," he said.

Her bed is not part of the classroom decor.

"We bring a mattress in there every day for her," he said, and carry it out every morning.

The lucky teachers do have homes but not privacy. Teachers double or triple up in Savoonga district housing and there's no room for spouses.

"Most of our people are single," Bauer said.

In a district with so much turnover, district officials hope Paige will bend rules outlined in No Child Left Behind, such as reconstituting schools with entirely new staffs if they're deemed failing.

"We think that is not a useful strategy in our situation," said John Davis, superintendent of the Bering Strait School District. "Our issue is, 'How do we slow down the rate of turnover?' "

Paige, who has made no promises of modifying the rules for Alaska, hinted that some changes could be forthcoming.

"We hear you," he said at a news conference in Fairbanks on Tuesday night. "We hear now in a different way.

"When you said 'rural' to me several days ago, it meant one thing," Paige said. "When you say it to me now it means a different thing. We'll go back now with this renewed understanding of the challenges you face and give new thought to how we can merge the wonderful work that's taking place in this state with the intent that the president has, which is that every child in America deserves a quality education."

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