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This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
When it comes to educating rural Alaska students, Mt. Edgecumbe is a welcome success story. The state-run boarding school in Sitka draws the best and brightest students, mainly from rural Alaska. It delivers a challenging, effective education. Gov. Murkowski recently commended the school, noting that all its students have passed the high school exit exam.
That's a stark contrast to traditional schools in Bush Alaska. In the predominantly Native areas of the Bush, students consistently lag behind statewide averages on benchmark exams and other standardized tests. Among the reasons: Village schools are plagued by high teacher turnover. Abstract, Western-style teaching methods don't necessarily mesh with Native cultural traditions.
Alaskans, especially Natives, had hoped for better results after a landmark lawsuit in the 1970s prodded the state to put high schools in most villages. The Molly Hootch case enabled families to keep their teenagers at home, instead of shipping them off to boarding schools or to attend school with relatives or state-sponsored hosts in larger communities. That forced removal was a traumatic process for parents and students. The exiled youths lost their Native language and connection with their families and culture. Many were lonely and alienated. Some were outright abused.
So it is an odd twist that the once-dreaded public boarding school is growing more and more popular among Native leaders and families. Mt. Edgecumbe has a waiting list. School districts in Nenana and Galena have added boarding schools. The Bethel-area School District has a fledgling one.
Some of the new enthusiasm for public boarding schools comes from Native leaders and parents who attended Mt. Edgecumbe, back when it was run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Other families are simply frustrated by the continuing failures of village high schools.
Public boarding schools have obvious potential, as Mt. Edgecumbe's continuing success shows. When sending a child to boarding school is an option, not a mandate, families can choose what works best for them. With air travel and e-mail, it's easier to stay connected if the child leaves home.
But boarding schools have a serious drawback: cost. Teaching a rural student at Edgecumbe can cost the state between $1,500 and $3,000 extra each year, compared to schooling the child in his or her home community. Putting that much extra money into education for rural students is a tough sell in a Legislature dominated by budget-wary Republicans from the Railbelt.
More widespread boarding schools may also drain the best students from village schools. If enough students leave, the village school would have to close for lack of students - not a good outcome. That would leave families with a choice between boarding school or a correspondence program.
In trying to improve rural schools, though, Alaska doesn't have a lot of proven solutions. Rural students at struggling schools shouldn't be forced to wait for a good education until somebody can figure out something that works in the local community. A gradual expansion of boarding schools offers a quicker route to a better education for more rural students. Ideally, the schools would be located in Bush regional centers, where it is easier for the students and their families to stay connected.
Yes, boarding schools cost more. But given the dearth of proven ways to improve rural education, a modest expansion of boarding schools is worth the extra money.