Students look back on boarding school days

Alaskans remember time when education required a move away

Posted: Monday, November 05, 2007

FAIRBANKS - When Barbara Beatus was ready to go to high school, there wasn't anywhere in her hometown for her to go. She grew up in Allakaket, and back in the 1970s there wasn't a high school within hundreds of miles. So the state flew Beatus nearly 190 miles so she could attend school in Fairbanks.

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Beatus, who now works as an accountant for Doyon Ltd., was one of thousands of teenagers that were flown from their village homes in the '60s and '70s to attend high school in the state's larger cities. The teenagers spent nine months of the year living with host families in Fairbanks, Anchorage and other regional hubs as part of the state's boarding home program, which started 40 years ago this year and lasted until 1976.

The program was controversial at the time and ultimately ended in the wake of a lawsuit alleging it was detrimental to rural children. But on Oct. 28, a reunion was held in Fairbanks bringing together former students and their Fairbanks boarding home parents, some of whom still keep in close contact with each other and have fond memories of their school year's together.

Fifty years ago, many rural Alaska villages didn't have schools, and almost none of those that did had high schools. Every year, the state sent hundreds of rural students, mostly Alaska Natives, to Bureau of Indian Affairs-run schools in Oregon and Oklahoma.

"Towards the end of the '60s, the Native organizations got very active," said Colleen Redman, a social worker who oversaw the boarding home program in Fairbanks. "They demanded that these kids come home to Alaska."

But there still weren't many schools in the villages, and Mount Edgecumbe, the state-run boarding school, was full. In 1967 the state began paying families in Fairbanks and other cities $5 a day to board students from the villages.

"It was just an opportunity for us to try to do something to help some of the folks in the villages," said Roger Burgraff, a Fairbanks resident who for several years was a boarding home parent. "I was active as a dog musher and of course understood some of the problems that they were having in the villages as far as being able to provide a high school education."

Almeda Witter and her husband took in five girls during the boarding program. She said she developed lasting relationships with some of the girls she took care of.

"One of them, my husband walked her down the aisle at her wedding," she said. "She named her daughter after me. We call her my granddaughter."

Having the village girls in her home was a good experience, Witter said, especially for her own young children.

"They learned a lot, you know, about the culture of the other girls," she said. "It was a very good experience for all of us. Not only did we help the girls but it was a good experience for our family, too."

The boarding home parents were responsible for feeding the students and making sure they got to school. The students attended Lathrop or Monroe High School or one of the local middle schools. The first year of the program, there were 37 boarding home students in Fairbanks. At the height of the program, in 1973, 130 students boarded here.

The transition to the "big city" was difficult for Beatus. Life in Fairbanks was very different from her experiences back home.

"We didn't have TV (in Allakaket). We didn't have phones," she said. "It was new. I didn't know how to use the phone. I didn't know anything about television."

Beatus and the other students were jolted from their subsistence lifestyle into life in the jostling city.

"Everything was different, even the food," said Beatus, who first came to Fairbanks as part of the program when she was 14 years old. "There was no adjustment period or anything. I remember crying every night for a while.

"It was hard leaving your family."

The village kids stuck together, Beatus remembers, and although they tried to blend in with the local teenagers and did develop some friendships, there was still a gulf dividing the two groups.

"It was two different cultures meeting," she said. "All we knew about was the village. The other kids at the time in Fairbanks didn't know that much about the villages at all."

Redman said she worked closely with the students and their foster parents to combat the homesickness and keep the students from dropping out and going home.

"We did everything we could to make them stay," she said. "We knew if we sent them home there wasn't an alternative as far as schooling."

Social sciences researcher Judith Kleinfeld, who studied the board home program extensively at the time, said that many of the children were experiencing something far more serious than mere homesickness.

"They (the state) were creating serious mental health problems in some of these children," she said.

Rather than integrating the children and giving them more educational opportunities, in some cases the state actually set up segregated classrooms in some schools where the village students were herded into remedial courses, Kleinfeld said. And, purposefully or not, the program was infused with undertones of ethnocentric assimilation.

"Many times the boarding home parents thought they were being kind to the students by buying them modern' clothes or giving them Western' haircuts," Kleinfeld said. "But many of the students interpreted it as criticism (of their culture)."

For her part, Beatus said her relationship with her parents was different after taking part in the program throughout her early teenage years.

"We lost that time with our parents," she said. "I think we kind of lost touch with them."

Kleinfeld's research at the time revealed that in general the village students didn't do well in the big city schools.

"However there was a small group of students who did quite well, especially those who went to boarding homes where the parents understood something about the (Native) culture," she said. "A lot of it depended on the family that took them in."

Ultimately, however, the program was challenged in court by rural parents and village leaders who wanted their children to come home, who felt the young people would receive a better education in their own communities. The state initially fought the lawsuit, which also claimed the state's choices of where to build high schools was racially discriminatory. In the end, the issue was settled out of court with Gov. Jay Hammond and the state Legislature agreeing to spend more than $100 million to build schools in small villages across the state.

In 1976, nine years after the board home program began in Fairbanks, the village high school students went home.

Last year, 15 high schoolers attended the small school in Allakaket.

Beatus said she's glad the students in her home town have a high school. But for her part, while leaving home was hard, she feels like attending school in Fairbanks did open opportunities for her. After all, she said, if she had stayed in Allakaket she wouldn't have gone to high school, which certainly would have meant a much different life.

"I don't know where I'd be," she said.


Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

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