Arctic Alaskan community gets school back on track

Students in a classroom at Kivalina's McQueen School. November 21, 2012.  Photo courtesy McQueen School, Alaska Dispatch. In the aftermath of fall storms that delivered heavy rains and wiped out the water supply for a small, erosion-prone and seemingly-always-in-peril village in Northwestern Alaska, there is good news.

Finishing their first quarter of school, which began five weeks late because of storm damage, students at the McQueen School in Kivalina are boasting a 90 percent attendance rate.

If students keep coming to class this diligently the entire year, they’ll be on track to set the highest attendance rate in more than a decade, reaching close to the average attendance rate — 92.7 percent — of the 49,000 students of the Anchorage School District.

And that’s with Kivalina’s 139 students (a mix of preschool all the way to high school seniors) spending an extra half-hour in class each day to make up for some of the academic time lost to the delayed start.

Ten years after escalating tensions forced an emergency closure at the school, the McQueen School stands proud, with that once-painful chapter now a distant memory. At the time, poor and misunderstood student behavior left some teachers feeling threatened and soured relationships between some school administrators, staff and community members.

‘Doldrums’ over now

These days, getting an education seems to matter mean more than ever in the Inupiat village located on a barrier reef between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina River, according to Zoe Theoharis, a longtime Kivalina teacher who’s been principal nearly three years. Some of Kivalina’s nearly 400 residents hunt bowhead whales, and many still live off the land and sea.

Northwest Arctic Borough School District Superintendent Norm Eck speculates that the kids’ autumn days spent with nothing to do — which turned into weeks with nothing to do — may have contributed to this year’s turnaround. Everyone had “a terrible time of the doldrums” waiting for school to open, he said in a recent interview.

But there may be more to it than a thankfulness to be free from boredom. The late start forced the school’s nine teachers to room together in Kotzebue for two weeks while the district figured out how to handle the situation. After the stint in Kotzebue, the displaced Kivalina teachers were sent to other villages while repairs were made to the Kivalina water system.

Storms overwhelmed pipes carrying water from the nearby Wulik River to the community water-treatment plant, and water in the storage tanks was too low to support the needs of the school or the washeteria. Without clean water, the school closed.

Bonding in Kotzebue

Something about that bonding time in Kotzebue and the longing to be back in Kivalina energized teachers and seems to have gotten them working well together, said second-year teacher Kathryn Campbell.

“It was really hard not being with the kiddos and the community,” she said in a phone interview from the school recently. “We had five weeks to realize how much we loved Kivalina and how much we wanted to be here.”

First-year teacher Sara Schneider, fresh out of college and on assignment in Kivalina with a college friend, thought a teaching gig in rural Alaska would “broaden her scope” beyond what she could find in the Washington and Oregon job markets. The borough school district scooped her up at a job fair. “Welcome to Bush Alaska,” she thought to herself when her first-ever teaching job ended up being sidelined by Mother Nature.

Schneider spent the interim in the village of Noorvik, thankful to have a job and a purpose. Two months into life in the classroom with Kivalina’s third and fourth graders, she says, “Things are going wonderfully.”

Rockier times

In 2002, Kivalina got a reputation in the media as an unfriendly Eskimo community with unruly children. There were clashes between students and Outside teachers and upset parents irked at what they perceived to be culturally naïve educators. The result: a situation so tense that the school district took the extraordinary step of closing the school because some teachers felt threatened.

It was the second time the district took such a dramatic step. It happened once before, in 1979, after a student pulled a gun on a principal.

That year, Tom Hanifan, a Vietnam veteran turned artist turned art teacher, had just landed in Kivalina, unaware of the violent encounter that happened weeks before his arrival. He went on to make a new life and career out of teaching in the far-flung community.

He watched other teachers come and go. Those who succeeded took time to develop relationships in the community and better understood the students and their families. Those who failed brought rigid expectations with them to the classroom, through which they interpreted behaviors and events. Often, they got it wrong, Hanifan said in a 2002 interview three years after his retirement.

“One time, I had a young teacher come to me and say, ‘The kids have just threatened to kill me‚'” Hanifan recalled in 2002 after spending 20 years at the school, including many as its principal. “I said, ‘Let’s go back to the classroom and air this thing out.’ I let the class talk, and I let the teacher tell his side of the story. It turned out that to the kids, this thing the teacher took as a threat was like you saying to me, ‘Hey, go fly a kite.’ But in the teacher’s culture, it was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.'”

Overblown claims?

Even so, the accusations coming out of McQueen School when it closed were serious: teacher complaints of verbal and physical harassment; one teacher who said a student waved a knife at him; other teachers who said students threw rocks at their windows.

At the time, Hanifan suspected some of the reports from the teachers — who were largely unaccustomed to rural Alaska, including one who claimed a student punched him in front of school staff — may have been overblown.

“If this had happened to anybody who had spent any time in Alaska before, this whole thing probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” Hanifan said in the 2002 interview. “It was a small number of incidents that didn’t warrant closing the school.”

Years later, his wife, principal Zoe Theoharis, is at the helm. She’s become a career educator at the school.

With time comes change

For most of the last decade, McQueen School has maintained attendance rates above 80 percent, according to data provided by Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development. In 2002-2003, it dipped to 79 percent. In 2008-2009, it rose to 87 percent.

Theoharis attributes the increased school participation to a growing sense among community members that a high school education is increasingly important to any young person’s future, whether spent hunting near the village or pursuing a high-tech career Outside. There is a realization that “if you want to live in both worlds, you have to live in the world-of-money economy,” she said.

The door is closing on the era when a young person could get by without a high school education or its equivalent, she said.

The prevalence of personal computers has also made a difference, introducing students to possible careers at much younger ages. And the school offers hands-on lessons in disciplines like mechanical drawing, home building and design, reading blueprints, and robotics. It all combines to give kids careers and skills to think about as they contemplate their life as young adults.

“Any time that you can open up the exposure for students, it opens up all the options and opportunities,” Theoharis said. “Everything takes on a real-life experience for them. The more you can broaden, the more they realize what the possibilities are.”

It “feels good” to be back in school, said Kristofer Sage, a 10th-grader who spent the early weeks of fall “just hanging out and waiting for school to start.”

The youth leader and athlete enjoys volleyball, basketball and Native Youth Olympics, in which the Indian stick pull is his strongest event. He has mentored other students, walking them through the expectations of school, what to work on, encouraging attendance, playing in the gym and socializing at lunchtime.

He’s not sure what career he’ll choose, but for now just plans to graduate and go into training that will allow him to land a job at the nearby Red Dog zinc mine.

‘Flipping over a pancake’

Sometime in the future, the community hopes to relocate the school to a new site on higher ground 7 miles away, an area less prone to erosion.
Meanwhile, everyone seems to agree that something about the McQueen School is different this year. Everyone is getting along better. And it both looks and feels different. A makeover during the summer added fresh paint and carpet. Creating new classrooms helped, too, as did a new method for communicating expectations to students.

“Seems like I’m in a different school,” said Becky Norton, the parent of three boys who attend McQueen and longtime school employee who has worked as a janitor, bilingual teacher and most recently, a teacher’s aide. “I’ve been really amazed at what’s going on this year. It was just like flipping over a pancake.”

Behavior and attitudes are better, something Norton, the teachers and Theoharis attribute to a program called CHAMPS. The acronym stands for Conversation, Help, Activity, Movement, Participation and Success, and it serves as an inventory kids can take to figure out how rambunctious or quiet they should be, or how much talking, if any, is appropriate at any given time. It’s a classroom-management strategy that requires all teachers to use the same code words and the same system for setting and communicating expectations.

Since it began, there have been fewer miscommunications and misunderstandings. Parents and grandparents are on board. And the McQueen School, which had a slow beginning this year thanks to a series turbulent downpours, is off to an excellent start.

“I have seen a tremendous change. I’m so proud of our students and staff,” Norton said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)

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