Mike Bock, Sasha Jones, Maya Riser-Kositsky
As summer was waning in Alaska’s largest city, Hoonah City schools Superintendent Ralph Watkins was among a dozen or so other school officials from around the state spending a precious sunny day recruiting teachers at a job fair in a hotel conference room. Fewer than 30 prospective teachers attended the fair, and the competition for their services was intense.
Watkins was offering a $1,000 signing bonus to fill vacancies in his small district, which sits in a Tlingit village 500 miles away on the island of Chichagof on Alaska’s southeast panhandle. Other districts in the room offered signing bonuses of up to $3,000, a free laptop, free and subsidized housing, free airfare to their remote village if hired, and more.
“It’s tough,” said Watkins, who has lived in Hoonah for over four years. “I don’t want to be here right now—trying to hire. It’s hard and heartbreaking for me, but it is my job, and I’m going to make it work.”
“I don’t want to be here right now—trying to hire. It’s hard and heartbreaking for me, but it’s my job, and I’m going to make it work.”
—Ralph Watkins, superintendent, Hoonah City schools
Recruiting and retaining good teachers is difficult in many communities across the United States—especially rural ones—but in rural Alaska and its Native Villages, it can be even tougher. That’s because schools rely heavily on out-of-state teachers to staff classrooms, and many of the teachers the rural schools hire struggle to adapt to the harsh weather, isolation, high cost, and cultural differences that come with living in remote Alaska.
Students from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s education program celebrate during graduation in May. The school lost accreditation for all seven of its teacher-preparation programs. —Young Kim for Education Week
“They don’t want to go to rural districts because a lot of our students are place-based,” Hirshberg said. “They’re older and already have families, and there are limited opportunities if you have a spouse. ... There are a number of reasons why it can be difficult if you’re a more mature student to go out and teach in rural Alaska versus if you’re 22 and kind of looking for that first exciting adventure.”
Meanwhile, at the job fair, school and district administrators soldier on, even as the turnout seems to them to have dwindled over the years.
The Northwest Arctic Borough school district—which serves 11 small Alaska Native Villages in the state’s far northwest corner—was offering prospective educators $1,500 for moving costs, health, dental, and vision insurance for an entire family for $90 a month, low rent, free utilities in teacher housing, and a starting salary of $55,550. The district’s retention rate veers from 20 percent to 25 percent, leading the 1,800-student district to hire 40 to 60 new teachers annually.
Accentuate the Positive
Assistant human resources director Amie Gardner—who moved to the village of Kotzebue in the district seven years ago with a single duffle bag and $300 to her name—last year prepared welcome bags for new hires. She filled a waterproof bag with snacks, a one-pound bag of coffee and tea, stress balls, stickers with the district’s logo, an iPad holder, an eye mask to help block out the midnight sun, candies, cold and hot packs, and other goodies.
“I thought it would help with retention, as a way to welcome them to our district with open arms,” Gardner said. “We do this because our teachers are important to us and the future of our children.”
Mike Hanley, the superintendent of the 100-student Chugach school district in Alaska’s southwest coast, bordering Prince William Sound, said his district manages to retain 90 percent of teachers from year to year, more than most. The district accomplishes that by empowering teachers to be a part of district decisions, he said.
DeFeo said it was striking to find in her research that superintendents, despite their recruitment struggles, weren’t suggesting communities in rural Alaska were worse off in some way than other communities. Indeed, the administrators at the job fair said they accentuate the positive aspects of living in rural Alaska—the serenity, quiet, and beauty of living in a village seemingly on the edge of the world, the sense of community.
“Pretty much everything that happens in the communities happen in the schools—weddings, funerals, potlucks, you name it,” said recruiter Jim Hickerson, a retired school employee of Bering Strait school district, a remote community where the schools are nearer to Russia than Anchorage. “If you’re looking for shopping centers, movie theaters and restaurants and vehicles, that’s not us.”
Cook, the Arkansas teacher transplant, said her years in Scammon Bay have given her a greater sense of fulfilling her mission as a teacher than she had before. “I feel like I am able to make a difference and [that’s] a positive thing for them, and it’s positive for me,” she said. “I think I made a difference in Arkansas, too, but I think there is more need here because there is less opportunity.”
Vol. 39, Issue 4, Pages 1, 12-13
ABOUT THE FELLOW
Victoria Petersen, the 2019 recipient of the Gregory M. Chronister Journalism Fellowship, was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Her father came to the state during Alaska’s 1980s oil rush and her mother’s family arrived before statehood, homesteading in Anchorage’s historic Spenard neighborhood in the 1940s.
Petersen graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2018 with a degree in journalism and public communications, and an emphasis in digital media. She is the education and local government reporter for the Peninsula Clarion, the daily newspaper that serves the Kenai Peninsula just south of Anchorage. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spenardian, a hyperlocal news blog and magazine dedicated to the neighborhood that raised her.
The Gregory M. Chronister Journalism Fellowship each year supports enterprising or investigative work in pre-K-12 education. The fellowship is meant to honor and reflect the now-retired Gregory M. Chronister, who helped lead Education Week as executive editor for 11 years, and as managing editor, associate editor, and Commentary editor for 21 years before that.