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Annual Migration: Far-Flung Alaskans Go Back to School

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Sitka, Alaska

Leah and Brooke Woods flip through their photo album, passing images of their rough-hewn log house, their husky Kino, and the end-of-the-year ceremony at their local school. In the picture, four children, from kindergarten to 8th grade, hold up certificates.

The 13-year-old twins come from Rampart, a predominantly Athabascan Indian village of some 60 residents that straddles the Yukon River. The hamlet is tucked 82 miles by plane from Fairbanks. The one-room school there spans preschool to 12th grade. Last year there were two high school students.

That explains why Leah and Brooke traveled nearly 1,000 miles last week to start high school here in Sitka. They are two of the nearly 300 Alaska youngsters who left home, crisscrossing a state one-fifth the size of the lower 48 to attend Mount Edgecumbe High School--a free, voluntary public boarding school run by the Alaska education department since 1985. Its primary mission is offering a comprehensive high school to far-flung students, many of them Alaska Natives, though it is open to all of the state's students.

At 14, Gabe Emerson has never been to school. There isn't one where he lives. He and his younger sister are the only school-age children among the 10 year-round residents in Funter Bay on Admiralty Island. Their parents have used a state-sponsored correspondence program to teach the two children at home.

Rather than take the family's fishing boat on a 3 1/2-hour trip through rough waters to Juneau, the site of the closest airport, Gabe boarded a float plane to make the connection that brought him here, to his first school.

In perhaps the nation's most complicated back-to-school pilgrimages, students arrived here last week from places like Whale Pass, Kwigillingok, and Arctic Village. They came from homes that stray far from even mainland Alaska. St. Paul Island, home of more than a dozen students, rises 300 miles west of the mainland in the Bering Sea, 1,400 air miles from Sitka.

Federal Roots

Mount Edgecumbe High inhabits a stretch of land on Japonski Island, connected to Sitka's 8,600 residents by the blue span of the O'Connell Bridge, a local landmark. Many classrooms face the channel and boast a mountain view.

One look at the school's campus gives away its history--beyond the new brick classroom building, the dorms are converted military barracks left from a World War II naval air station; the gym is a cavernous hangar complete with control tower.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs opened Mount Edgecumbe as a boarding school for Alaska Native students in 1947. At the time, many Native teenagers had to attend boarding schools in other states because their villages did not offer secondary schooling.

The BIA shut the school down in 1983 following a court settlement in which the state, flush with oil money, agreed to build high schools in all of the villages with only elementary schools. In 1985, the state education department reopened Mount Edgecumbe.

The school's existence still sparks debate within the state. Though hundreds of high schools were opened under the settlement, many rural superintendents know they can't compete with Mount Edgecumbe, which has a waiting list of students, said Stephen McPheters, the executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. The school's ample operating budget--$4.1 million a year--is another sore spot.

Still, defenders of Mount Edgecumbe High point to the limited opportunities for students in remote schools. And they proclaim Mount Edgecumbe a bargain, comparing its $14,500-per-student price tag with those of rural districts that spend $23,000 or more.

Homesickness an Epidemic

"I know it's the best thing for the twins," said Janet Woods, Leah's and Brooke's mother. "But it's not the easiest thing to send them off at 13 and not see them nine months out of the year."

Like the twin sisters, many students come from "bush" Alaska, frontier communities most easily accessible by air. About 80 percent of Mount Edgecumbe's students come from communities with high schools of 30 students or fewer.

The boarding school's relative bounty--well-stocked computer labs, courses in Pacific Rim cultures as well as Russian, Chinese, and Japanese languages--can make for sharp contrasts with hometown schools. About 70 percent of Mount Edgecumbe's graduates continue their education, while many Alaska Native students in smaller schools struggle to get by.

As students arrived and classes began last week, rows of luggage and jumbo boxes of laundry detergent lined the sidewalks by the school's three white clapboard dormitories. Groggy faces registered the toll of long hours--or days--of travel.

Helen Mercado was busy on the office phone. The state picks up the tab for one-way plane tickets from students' homes to Sitka and return flights at year's end; the school choreographs all of the comings and goings. Unpredictable weather and sometimes-reluctant students explain the calls from frantic parents and inquiries about why someone didn't make a flight.

Ms. Mercado also speaks to new students in airports around the state, some paralyzed by fear.

"It's real hard," she said. "A lot of them haven't really been out of their villages before."

At least three students each year won't ever make it to this school, said its superintendent, Linwood Laughy. "They'll just clutch at the first airport hub or never board in the first place."

By year's end, the school loses about 15 percent of its students to homesickness, culture shock, an inability to keep up with academic demands, or a host of difficult family circumstances.

Coming from schools where a handful of teachers provide the basics, the academic offerings here may also seem overwhelming--courses like computer technology and video production, or science courses that take students wading into the channel to examine marine life. Students can also take courses at two nearby colleges and the Sitka school district. After school, students have choices like swimming, scuba diving, Native dance clubs, and choir. And weekends include berry picking or hiking trips in the lush mountains that dwarf Sitka.

Friends in High Places

Mount Edgecumbe cements unlikely friendships. Over the years, the alliances that started here have connected some of the state's most prominent citizens and built loyal and powerful support for the school itself.

The school counts among its alumni many of the state's most prominent Native leaders--people like veteran legislator Al Adams, a state senator from Kotzebue. Mr. Adams, an Eskimo, graduated from Mount Edgecumbe in 1961 and has derailed attempts in the legislature to eliminate his alma mater.

"I can go into any community in the state of Alaska and know someone there from Mount Edgecumbe," Mr. Adams said. "I consider them family."

As a teenager in Sitka, he met Morris Thompson, who left his home in the Athabascan community of Tanana to attend the boarding school.

Today, the 1959 graduate is the president and chief executive officer of Doyon Corp. Ltd., one of the largest Native-owned corporations in the state.

The Mount Edgecumbe network was instrumental, Mr. Thompson said, in building the political muscle necessary to pass the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Act. That law made the Alaskan oil pipeline a reality while establishing regional and village Native corporations endowed with about $1 billion and 44 million acres of land.

What's different about Mount Edgecumbe High today is that parents and students, Native and otherwise, can choose to come here. It is no longer the only option for most teenagers. Still, the long trek and marked change of pace make the school an instant challenge.

Gabe Emerson's mother, Donna, flew with her son from Funter Bay to Sitka to ease his first lengthy stay away from home. She smiled as Gabe rattled on about the prospect of practicing a team sport other than two-person baseball, a game he had polished with his sister out of necessity.

"It's a real leap of faith to turn your child over to someone else," she said, watching Gabe run ahead to take a look at his first school gym. "This is a really different school year for us, to be sure."

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