Three months ago I loaded up my truck and camp trailer, said goodbye to my family, friends and my Idaho home, then started the long drive of over 2,500 miles north to the tiny little school in the community of Slana, Alaska. I had no idea what to expect, what my exact job description was or even where I was going to live. I drove for five long days with only my two dogs and my thoughts to keep me company. With every mile north, I questioned myself, my reasoning, and my sanity, having no idea what waited for me up in the far north.
I had been told that Slana was a tiny K-12 school that was struggling to keep the minimum of ten students enrolled, which the state of Alaska requires for funding. I was assured they would keep it open this year for sure, and was guaranteed a paycheck for the next 10 months, so not really knowing for sure what I was getting myself into, I continued up the ALCAN highway towards my destination. After a year of being embroiled in a losing battle, I needed to find myself again, to find clarity in purpose and to find a place where I hoped to get back to the basics of education, a place where we all worked together as a team to do what’s best for our kids.
Arriving in Slana that Sunday morning was a great start. There were no stores, no gas stations, not even any local government, other than a tiny little post office, but what I found was the nicest bunch of people I have had the pleasure of knowing. They have restored my faith in humanity and in the kindness of strangers. They were so appreciative that I had chosen to come to Slana and welcomed me with open arms, dinner invitations and instant friendships. They were all hoping that I was there to help them save their school, adding that they had prayed for my arrival that morning and when they found out I had eight grandkids, they had hoped I was bringing them with me! I had to inform them that grandma Shelly wasn’t going to let those eight grandkids move to Alaska, but I reassured them I would do everything in my power to help them keep their school open. What I didn’t tell them, from what I already knew, is that the prognosis didn’t look good.
Slana School sits off the Tok Cutoff Highway, 260 miles northeast of Anchorage. It is part of the Copper River School District (CRSD). CRSD is headquartered in Glennallen next to the Glennallen K-12 school. CRSD also consists of the Slana School 75 miles to the Northeast and Kenny Lake School 40 miles to the south. Twenty years ago, CRSD was a thriving school district with 8 schools and enrollment of over 500 students. Today it is a school district of three schools with declining enrollment, struggling to survive.
The declining enrollment can be attributed to several factors; political, economic, geographic and Covid related. During the 1970’s, the big population surge was due mostly to the construction of the oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope down to Valdez on the Prince William Sound. The pipeline was constructed right through the Copper River Valley and provided much needed jobs for those living in that area. Since that time there has been a steady decline as jobs become more scarce, cost of living increases, and the price of fuel to commute the long distances to jobs have led to more people leaving the area for bigger cities like Anchorage or the Palmer-Wasilla area.
The community of Slana has a unique history with the distinction of being part of the last homesteading in America. In the early 1980’s the BLM opened up 40,250 acres of public lands in three final blocks of federal lands for homesteading. In 1983 they opened up 10,250 acres of federal land to homesteaders in the flat that became known as the Slana settlement. This created 119 homesite patents, 30 headquarter patents and 8 trade and manufacture site patents. Both Oprah Winfrey, on her TV show and Paul Harvey, on his radio program discussed the end of homesteading in Alaska and what a historic milestone this was, which had the effect of drawing hundreds of people to the quiet community of Slana.
This influx of people had both positive and negative effects for the community and brought forth varying opinions from the locals. More families arriving meant more students for the school which helped the community lobby for a new school building, a dream of many that was realized in 1992 with the construction of a new school with three classrooms, a small gym and a kitchen with cafeteria. The school opened to much fanfare with 42 students during that first year. Sadly, the population boom was short-lived. By 1998 the student population had fallen to 20, and ever since it has hovered between 10-15 students every year.
This year the Slana School started with 10 students enrolled, which dropped to seven when three students opted to enroll in Upstream Learning, and there is a strong likelihood of finishing the year with only five. The District will be forced to make the tough decision of shutting down yet another of its rural schools and what was once a district with eight schools will be down to only two. Remaining students living in Slana, Chistochina and the surrounding areas will have to ride the bus to Glenallen, go online or homeschool.
Effects of government decisions could have devastating effects far down the line. For every action taken by political leaders, there is an equal and opposite reaction happening out in the schools. If schools are consolidated or shut down, such as Slana, there is a long three hour round trip bus ride every day to add to an already long school day. Special Education services will also still need to be offered and there are other factors to consider as well.
I came to Alaska not wanting a fight, but this fight in Slana was not mine to have. Mrs. Bates has spent the last 35 years, almost half of her life, fighting for Slana School and the kids in the community. Starting her Alaska teaching career in 1988 in a one room school, which at that time was located on the property she owns today with her husband. Every year she fought to get a “real” school built and every year she lost the fight, until 1992 when political leaders and the school district came together with the funding to build the Slana School. And every year since, as enrollment has hovered near the magic mark of 10 students, Mrs. Bates has led the fight to keep the school open and she has no intention of backing down now, even at the age of 75. Her passion and strength are admirable. Every morning she puts on her insulated pants and winter coat, walks the mile to the schoolhouse, sometimes in 40 below weather, and every morning when she gets to school she will call her husband to let him know she wasn’t attacked by a bear, moose or any other wild animal. She stands about five feet nothing, with a quiet voice and a huge heart, but is tough as nails, which I’m thinking explains the lack of attacks by wild animals. In just three short months she has helped me find the clarity, regain my focus, and most importantly she has made me realize that whether you are in a very large district with thousands of students or in Slana, Alaska with 10, our kids are always, and I mean always, worth the fight.