Graduation Rates Up Sharply in Rural Alaska Schools

By Elizabeth Rose — January 29, 1986 4 min read

Alaska’s small village high schools, most of which were built to comply with a 1976 court order, have had a dramatic impact on graduation rates in the state’s remote rural areas.

According to a new study by the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, the dropout rate from such schools, which serve a primarily Native population, is half the national average.

Moreover, the study says, access to local schools has meant that a greater proportion of rural youths I now attend high school. Before 1976, it notes, many rural students, mostly Eskimo and Alaskan Indian, were sent to boarding schools far from their homes.

The institute’s report, “Alaska’s Small Rural High Schools: Are They Working?” is based on information gathered from 162 high schools in rural communities. Together, the schools serve 3,700 students, almost 16 percent of Alaska’s high-school student population.

Most of the schools studied were built after a 1976 settlement in Tobeluk v. Lind, a lawsuit filed by the Alaska Legal Services on behalf of 126 rural communities. The agreement, since incorporated into state law, requires the state to provide a high school in every village that wants one and has at least one child of secondary-school age.

The success of these rural schools has been a hotly debated topic among educators and politicians because of the high cost of building them. By 1984, the state had pent $143 million constructing 126 high schools in small rural villages.

In some remote areas, the report says, the state spends more than $16,000 per year educating each high-school student. Almost 60 percent of rural students attend a high school with 40 or fewer students, it notes; nearly a quarter are in schools with enrollments of 20 or fewer.

Advantages of Small Schools

The authors of the report--Judith S. Kleinfeld, professor of educational psychology; G. Williamson McDiarmid, assistant professor of education; and David Hagstrom, associate professor of education--collected information from telephone interviews and mail surveys to high-school principals and schoolboard presidents and visited 32 rural schools. Most rural community leaders and educators, they found, see significant advantages in the small local schools.

"[Small-school] educators do not model their programs on the comprehensive high school,” the researchers write. “Rather than fighting smallness, they use it to their advantage.”

Among the overall advantages the study cites are that students are allowed to grow up with their parents in the village; that each student receives individual attention from teachers because of the schools’ small enrollments; and that communities can exert considerable control over curricula, often incorporating the teaching of indigenous culture, skills, and languages. Also, the report notes, communities benefit because they use the schools as community centers.

Scores Below Average

But there may be educational disadvantages to such small isolated schools, the researchers note. Student test scores in the rural schools are far below the national average, they say. Nonetheless, they conclude that “the greatest educational impact of the small high schools may be in their long-term effect: raising achievement in subsequent generations of rural students.”

With local schools, the report says, students are far more likely to finish their secondary education.

The low dropout rate in Alaska’s small rural high schools stands in stark contrast to findings from a similar study before the 1976 court settlement, the authors note. A survey ofl05 rural boarding-school students completed by the Institute in 1974 found that almost 25 percent of the students left school during their freshman year and only 46 percent made it through their first two years.

The 1974 study said that rural students dropped out because they experienced school-related social and emotional problems tied to the fact that they were far away from home and in an essentially foreign culture.

Questioning Quality

Educators are aware of the shortcomings of the village schools, according to the researchers. Factors such as a lack of variety in their courses and a shortage of teachers with knowledge of specialized subjects contribute to educators’ fears that such schools may not adequately prepare students for college.

The report profiles three schools that have overcome those obstacles and are, in the authors’ terms, “working well” and providing a sound education; it also looks at one school that is not faring well. Characteristics that distinguish the good schools, the authors say, include an innovative staff that uses community resources and a central office that encourages citizens to adapt the school to meet local needs.

“Most people we interviewed want small high schools to remain the backbone of the rural secondary-school system,” the authors write.

The report also says that educators and community leaders want to retain the boarding option for students who are advanced academically or who for social reasons should be away from home.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week