Anchorage seeks study of Native exodus to the city

Schools see increase in students as rural Alaska villages lose pupils

Posted: Wednesday, October 01, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and Schools Superintendent Carol Comeau have asked Gov. Sarah Palin to organize an emergency task force on the Native migration to the city.

Anchorage schools have seen more than 400 new Native students since school started, while rural schools across Western Alaska report losing pupils.

Comeau says the $1,200 energy bonus that came with permanent fund checks this year was supposed to ease energy costs for rural residents, but many used the money to move to urban areas where food and fuel are cheaper.

Palin's office had no immediate response to Monday's request from the Anchorage officials. A spokesman says she's aware of the problem in rural Alaska.

The task force could include rural Alaskans, business leaders, educators and others, Begich said.

Begich, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

In a June interview about rural migration, Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News he considered fuel costs the single biggest factor driving migration.

Rural schools lose money because schools are funded on head count, said Larry LeDoux, state commissioner of education. Schools with fewer than 10 students could close, he said.

"It's a trend that's been going on for quiet some time. It seems to be accelerating this year," he said.

"We have heard that some districts are reporting a real loss of students."

The transition from rural to urban schools can be hard, Comeau said.

"We're talking about high schools that are bigger than the communities most of the students are coming from," she said.

City and school officials are concerned about how rural Native families manage once they arrive in the city. Some might need help with food or transportation, Comeau said. Many are restarting lives, in need of jobs and housing.

"We know a lot of them are already doubling- and tripling-up with their relatives in houses and we know that is not the best situation over time," she said.

Secondary teacher specialist Barb Dexter, who works with homeless middle and high school students, said she talked to a high school senior Monday who had just moved to Anchorage from Bethel.

"I can't afford to live there," he told her.

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