Report: Student surge not all from rural villages

Posted: Sunday, December 13, 2009

ANCHORAGE - When Anchorage school enrollment spiked last year, the superintendent and mayor told the governor they feared a wave of families was leaving rural Alaska.

But a study has found little proof of a Bush exodus.

The Anchorage Daily News reports the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage surveyed students' parents and guardians, asking where they were from and why they moved.

The researcher found that more than half of the 881 new students in the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years came from other cities and towns on Alaska's road system rather than remote villages.

The single largest group - nearly one-third - came from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Families listed job opportunities as the top reason for moving.

The most surprising finding, the report says, is that more than 43 percent of new students in Anchorage moved to the city while their families did not. Most often, the students were sent to live with relatives such as grandparents or aunts and uncles in the city.

Other students enrolled in Anchorage because of custody changes.

Village flight was a hot topic in 2008 as energy costs rose. The state was giving Alaskans $1,200 "energy bonus" checks along with an unusually fat Permanent Fund dividend check, and officials thought families might be using that money to move to the city.

That September, schools superintendent Carol Comeau and then-Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich wrote a letter to then-Gov. Sarah Palin calling for the state to form a task force to combat the perceived problem.

Comeau said Thursday many of the rural students returned to their hometowns later in the school year. While some continued to move back and forth between the city and the Bush, the massive influx to the city never materialized.

There is a gradual move from rural Alaska to the city, but it may be slower than people thought, said Marie Lowe, an assistant professor of anthropology who authored the report.

State demographer Greg Williams, who is preparing new statewide population estimates for release early next year, sees the same migration trends that have been true for years: Growth in Southcentral Alaska but not in the Bush, plus general movement from Anchorage toward the Mat-Su Valley.

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