US Senator Lisa Murkowski took time during the congressional recess to make a swing through Sitka this week. She did all the expected things, like addressing the Chamber of Commerce and meeting with community leaders to discuss funding priorities. And the senator did one unexpected thing: She spent the afternoon in a talking circle with just over a dozen students at Pacific High School– where one of the most influential voices in Washington had to wait her turn.
Pacific High students start and end every day in a circle. They pass a talking item around: it can be a stuffed frog or a rock or a dried piece of devil’s club, and talk and listen to each other. So when Senator Lisa Murkowski visited on Wednesday (2-19-20), students welcomed her into the round.
The tone of the event was pretty subdued. That is, until principal Mandy Summer brought out a plate of food.
“This was our school lunch today,” Summer said, showing the colorful plate of fish tacos to Murkowski.
“Yeah, but she shellacked it,” a student called out. The dish was beautifully plated.
“I did not! We had fish tacos for lunch today, from the fish to schools program, donated by local fishermen, made by students in our culinary program,” Summer continued. “We’re really trying to build the farm to school program here.”
“Fabulous. Fabulous,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski said that Pacific High was the newest check off of her Alaska high school bucket list.
“I made a personal little pledge to myself before most of you were born, about 16 years ago, that what I wanted to do was I wanted to try to visit every school in Alaska,” she said.
One by one, the students passed the talking items around, and shared why they attend Pacific High, and why the school is important to them, and why they keep coming back. Murkowski listened. Praise for teachers and the school environment popped up at every interval around the circle.
But students also discussed the challenges they face as a school. Philip Barker brought up the ongoing uncertainties around the budget.
“Budget cuts- there’s always, every year a possibility of this school shutting down,” he said. “And we lost our only counselor to the budget cuts, so we’re constantly pressured.”
Many students mentioned the absence of a beloved school counselor this year as a hardship. Principal Summer said they lost the social worker post because federal funding wasn’t renewed.
“That has really been a challenge, what seems as though the disposable nature of having a school counselor, it’s more of ‘Wouldn’t that be nice?’ when really it’s just truly a necessity, and we feel like especially here” she said.
Students also spoke up about the stigma Pacific High students face, just for attending an alternative school. Madison Roy-Mercer voiced those concerns, echoed by several students.
“It was super scary for going to a place that was out of our comfort zone- to a place that has a stigma for being the alternative, or the other,” she said. “Coming from Sitka High, we have that ingrained in us.”
Murkowski didn’t really speak to the budget concerns, but the discussion around stigma resonated with Murkowski.
“My husband and I have two boys and they could not learn more differently. One of them will read a text and be able to recite it back to you. The other one hates to read, he’s got a reading disability, but he’s a gifted artist,” she said. “If we’re going to do right by our kids in education we have to give them educational opportunities that are beyond just what you’re gonna get at Sitka High School.”
“How we work to take away that stigma that an alternative school, is a different way of learning because we don’t learn the same.”
At the end of the meeting, the senator presented a book to the students, to stress the importance of reading.
“Shadows on the Koyukuk is written by an Athabascan leader, Sidney Huntington, who passed away a few years ago,” Murkowski said, holding a copy of the book. Barker, the student who spoke about budget cuts, raised his hand.
‘That’s my uncle,” he said.
“Let me tell ya, your uncle was a man that I loved,” said Murkowski.
Murkowski gave the copy of the book to Barker. In return, the students gave her gifts made in the classroom– a copper shield necklace and a can of smoked sockeye salmon.