A school board in Southeast Alaska meets Tuesday to decide whether the school in Tenakee Springs can stay open. The school faces closure after dropping below the state’s minimum number of students.
Parents and school board members raised the alarm earlier this summer that the Tenakee school might have to close. In the past, the Chichagof Island community has been able to attract families and keep enrollment above the state’s 10-student minimum. But at last check, the district was expecting just five students for the coming year.
The state doesn’t close schools. That decision is up to the local school boards, which in this case is the board for the Chatham School District. Scott Butterfield is the superintendent of schools.
“They have a fabulous school,” Butterfield said. “A fabulous community. Outstanding students that have done academically not just average, but better than average. To lose that, and the passion the community has for their school, is anything but easy.”
Tenakee Springs has between 50 and 150 residents, depending on the season. The community is isolated, with no roads in or out. Because of that, residents fear the closure of the school could deal a crippling blow to the community’s economy and way of life.
“I know the community wants us to be creative with funding,” Butterfield said. “And they said they’re willing to take substantially less money to keep it open. But as a district, I’m not sure we have the funds to make that happen.”
Low enrollment issues are not limited to Tenakee Springs.
Low enrollment is also a problem in the community of Pelican, which has its own school district. We couldn’t reach officials there, but the Associated Press reports that Pelican is expected to lose about a quarter of its state funding next year, because it has fewer than 10 students enrolled.
And in Port Alexander, school is scheduled to open as usual this fall. But concerns persisted all summer about low enrollment. At last check, Port Alexander has nine students committed and a few maybes in the wings. But the school is more than that.
“For Port Alexander, the school is really the center of our community,” said Molly Kimzey. She has a first grader at the Port Alexander school. She says the school doubles as a community center. “They have activities every month that bring the community together, whether it’s BINGO or pot lucks or science fairs or Battle of the Books competitions that they celebrate. There’s always something going on.”
Officials in Tenakee say the same is true there, that the school building is the epicenter of community life, especially in the winter.
Gordon Chew is the chairman of the advisory school board in Tenakee Springs. They meet locally and make a recommendation to the regional board, which votes. Chew wrote in an e-mail that they’re going over budgets, working with foreign exchange student providers, and trying to find alternatives to closing.
The Chatham School District’s regional school board meets at 6 p.m. on Aug. 6 by teleconference to decide on the Tenakee School.
To join the call, dial 866-200-5786. The conference ID number is 2674934. You can also attend in person at Gustavus School, Tenakee Springs School, and Klukwan School.