University of Alaska, Anchorage, Institute of Social and Economic Research December 1985, Vol. XXII, No. 31


In 1976, Alaska chose an approach to providing secondary education in remote rural villages that was at once very unusual and very conventional. Rather than sending students, mostly Eskimo and Indian, to boarding programs far from their homes, the state agreed to provide a high school in every village that wanted one.

Today, nearly a decade later, many people in the state are asking: Are the students in these small and expensive high schools receiving a high quality education? Do the advantages that these schools offer‹proximity to family and community, tutorials, travel and other special programs‹constitute a triumph for rural education? Or do the disadvantages‹limited variety in teachers and courses, lack of teachers with specialized subject-matter knowledge, isolation, inadequate vocational or college preparation‹condemn rural students to second-rate schooling?

To answer these questions, we need to understand the alternative to the small high schools. What kind of education did Alaska's former boarding school system offer village students? Below, we describe one student's experience with the state boarding program‹an experience unfortunately common during the boarding school era:


1. Most rural communities visited want the village high schools. These small local schools offer important advantages: (1) students can grow up with their families; (2) students get a lot of individual attention from teachers; (3) students play key roles in school activities; (4) communities can exert considerable control over Iocal high schools and use them to pass on Native culture and languages; (5) the schools bring much needed community services, increase employment, and contribute to community spirit.

2. Most rural communities visited also want some type of boarding school option.

3. As a consequence of replacing the boarding school system with village high schools, the graduation rate of rural adolescents has increased dramatically.

4. Some small high schools offer a high quality educational program well adapted to local circumstances and community priorities. Others are having serious problems.

5. Schools that are working well exhibit:

€ A strong partnership between teachers and the community.

€ Agreement between teachers and the community on a theme for the educational program.

€ An enterprising teaching staff.

€ A central office that encourages local professionals and the community to take the initiative in adapting schooling to local needs.

6. Districts and schools have developed many innovative strategies (described in the full report) to address the educational problems of rural adolescents in small high schools. These problems include: (1) limited variety of courses, teachers, and activities; (2) the lack of specialized vocational courses; (3) inadequate preparation for college; (4) low achievement test scores; (5) insufficient opportunities for rural students to become competent and confident in the world beyond their villages; and (6) difficulties in making the critical transition to adulthood after graduation. Going to Anchorage for High School in 1971

Staying close to her cousin, Emily walked off the plane into the Anchorage airport, which was awhirl with white people. Coming from a village of 400 Yupik Eskimo, Emily had neuer seen so many people‹so many white people‹all at once.

The Boarding Home Program coordinator droue Emily to the split-leuel home in the suburbs where she was supposed to live for the school year. The waxed wooden floorsgleamed, and fresh finger-towels hung in the guest bathroom. The family thought that hauing a teenage girl from another culture living with them would be exotic‹and the boarding fees prouided by the state would generate extra income.

Although she was a high school freshman, Emily's test scores showed that she read below the sixth grade leuel. Most uillage freshmen, the school district had found, could not do ninth grade work. In the classroom, these students huddled together in the back, unwilling to speak. Euen some of the words bandied about in class‹"suspension, " "promotion", "detention"‹were totally new to them, although they dare not let on.

The district placed Emily and her cousin in the Rural Transition Center, a special program for uillage students held in a downtown storefront school. Emily stud fed English, mathematics, and social stud ies in a three-teacher school uery similar to contemporary uillage high schools. The district hoped to transfer Emily to a large comprehensiue high school for her sophomore year.

Emily did not do well at the school. "She could do much better, " one teacher said. "There are times when she exhibits extreme industriousness and scholarship. But she doesn't seem interested or motioated‹by me anyway." Her teachers d id not realize just how homesick Emily was. They saw her as "sullen and moody much of the time."

Emily was also hauing problems at her boarding home. In the uillage she didn't need to tell her parents where she was going or when she would return. In the city, her boarding home parents insisted that they knew where she was at all times. Emily sometimes forgot. Soon she was transferred to another home.

Just after Thanksgiving Emily's second boarding home mother came into the program office distraught. She wanted to file a missing person's report. Emily had not come home the night before.

* * *

While we have changed all the identifying details, this is an actual case history of one village student who went away to high school in Anchorage in 1971. Although some students succeeded in the boarding home program, Emily's experience is not unusual.

In 1974 we followed the school careers of 105 village freshmen who entered three different types of boarding programs away from home: a boarding school, an urban boarding home program, and a rural boarding home program later replaced by a boarding school.1 About half these students experienced school-related social and emotional problems.

Drop-out rates for these programs were high.2 Almost 25 percent of the students left during their freshman year and others left during the summer. Only 46 percent~made it through the first two years of any boarding program. While some of these boarding students left school altogether, most shuttled from program to program, discontented with each in turn.

These boarding programs presented students with a wide array of courses and teachers. Such educational opportunities did not, however, translate into substantial growth in achievement. During their two years away at boarding school, the village students we studied gained less than one and a half years

in reading achievement and less than one year in language achievement.3

Not all boarding school situations produced high levels of social and emotional problems, high dropout, and low achievement. In the early 1960s, for example, Mt. Edgecumbe graduated rural students who scored almost at grade level on standardized achievement tests.4 Many later distinguished themselves as leaders in the Alaska Native Claims movement. Admission to Mt. Edgecumbe was, however, selective during this period. In the early 1960s, the freshmen were reading almost at grade level when they initially entered the school.

Similarly, rural students who were mature and had strong educational backgrounds succeeded in the Anchorage Boarding Home Program. When such students graduated from the boarding home program, they sometimes attended highly selective universities and, generally, did well in college.

In short, boarding programs worked only for a ~ minority of rural students. In our earlier 1973 study I of boarding programs, we used the following criteria I for success: (1) the student stayed in the program, (2)

the student did not develop severe or moderately | severe school-related social and emotional problems, - and (3) the student gained half a year or more i~ reading achievement for the full school year. By these I standards, only 23 percent of the 105 students that

we followed succeeded during their freshman year.

Staying Home in a Small Village High School: The Tobeluk Agreement of Settlement

Today a student like Emily goes to a small high school in her home village. The legal mandate for these village high schools resulted from a lawsuit filed by Alaska Legal Services on behalf of 126 rural communities.

According to the decree that settled the case, the state of Alaska must provide a secondary program in every community that wants one, even if the

The Boarding Home Program coordinator finally located Emily at the Holiday Inn Motel. Emily told him that she had wanted to call her boarding home parents, but she couldn't figure out how to use the telephone in the motel room.

Despite her troubles, Emily wanted to stay in Anchorage. "I don't want to ruin my education," she said. Her cousin testified that Emily had nevergotten into trouble at home.

Emily went home for Christmas and decided not to come back.

community has only one high school student.5 In 1976, 110 of the 126 communities included in the original lawsuit chose to have a local high school. 6 Of the sixteen communities that originally declined the offer, ten later changed their minds.

By 1984, Alaska had spent nearly $143 million constructing high schools in small rural villages.7 In some remote communities, the state spends more than $16,000 per year educating each high school student. 8

Do Small High Schools Provide a High Quality Education?

Today a rural high school student like Emily attends a modern high school at home replete with personal computers, shop facilities, a gymnasium, and a library. Some have science labs, auto shops, computer labs, and similar amenities.

These schools have few students. Almost 60 percent of rural students attend a high school of forty students or less while nearly a quarter are in schools of twenty or less.

These schools usually have few teachers and can offer mostly a basic academic program. A high school of sixteen students, for example, may have only two certified teachers‹one teaches English and social studies, while the other teaches math and science.

Because the school is small, these teachers may know each student well and understand the type of educational help they need. The teachers may have taken advantage of the flexibility small size offers to develop an educational approach tailored to the setting. They may have students research and write articles for a community newspaper as a way of teaching writing. They may have students learn to repair three-wheelers and outboard motors for community people as part of the vocational program. They may arrange a class trip to Anchorage so stu

dents learn about urban survival skills and career and college opportunities. They may make creative use of tutorials, peer teaching, and computer-assisted instruction.

On the other hand, these two teachers, while imaginative in taking advantage of the opportunities offered by a small school, may not have the academic background to teach such subjects as chemistry or world history. Moreover, the school may have no art or music program. The school might be able to field a basketball team but offer few other extracurricular activities.

Certainly, these small high schools are safe, supportive environments. Indeed, some critics would contend that they are too safe. Teachers in small rural high schools are generally very solicitous of their students, and social relations tend to be more familial than formal. Students grow up, go to school, and graduate with the same small group of students.

Are rural students in these small high schools really receiving quality education? Did the state of Alaska make a mistake in agreeing to establish a high school program in every community that wants one?

These are the questions worrying Native leaders who want to raise educational standards. These questions also worry rural college students who find themselves unprepared for either the academic o~ social demands of college. These same questions worry rural teachers who wonder if they should send high achieving students away to a boarding school, even though the loss of these talented students would hurt the education of those staying at home. Finally, these questions worry state policymakers who wonder if the educational benefits of these schools are worth the enormous costs.


Study Objectives

To address these large issues we attempted to answer specific empirical questions:

€ What educational programs do Alaska's small rural high schools offer?

€ What educational problems do these schools face?

€ What strategies have educators devised to capitalize on the educational opportunities offered by small high schools and cope with the problems posed by small size, cultural differences, and remoteness.

Definition of a Small Rural High School

This study defines a small rural high school as one with fewer than 100 students, in grades nine through twelve, that is located in a rural community of less than 1,000 residents.

By this definition, about 3,700 rural students attended 162 small Alaska high schools in 1984.9

Most small high schools are located in remote Native villages. About 25 percent, however, enroll mostly white or a mix of white and Native students.

Not all the small high schools were created as a result of the Tobeluk lawsuit. Indeed, 36 of the 162 high schools existed long before the settlement decree. These high schools came into existence because non-Native rural communities used their knowledge of the political system to get funding for local high schools many years before Native communities.

Study Methods

Since rural high schools in Alaska are located in a wide variety of communities, educational strategies that work in one type of community may be inappropriate in another. For this reason we gathered information on the educational programs of all 162 small rural high schools.

Due to the generous cooperation of rural communities and rural educators, we have enjoyed exceptionally high response rates‹typically greater than 90 percent.

We used five basic sources of information:

1. Telephone interviews and mail-out surveys conducted with 97 percent of small high school principals.

We asked principals (who were usually teachers as well) for detailed information about their small high school program, about problems, and about the ways they were addressing these problems.

2. Site visits to thirty-two small high schools randomly selected by size and region.

During site visits, we interviewed community school committee members, high school students, and school staff. We observed classes and collected a variety of other information‹students' writing samples, graduation requirements, etc.

3. Telephone interviews with over 90 percent of the school board presidents of rural districts with small high schools.

Working with the Alaska Association of School Boards, we interviewed rural school board presidents on the strengths and weaknesses of small high schools and innovative educational strategies their districts were using.

4. Collection of achievement test scores from 94 percent of small high schools.

While we are well aware of the many problems inherent in using standardized tests with students in small, culturally different schools, we collected these scores because they are the commonly accepted measure of school achievement.

5. In-depth studies of small high school issues by Native and non-Native educators.

To obtain a richer view of community attitudes toward village high schools and other issues, we worked with seven Native and three non-Native educators on special studies of the high school situation in their own communities.

Organization of Report

This report consists of three sections. In the first, we present the views of rural educators and residents on local high schools and boarding school options.

The second section documents the effects of the small high schools on graduation rates and presents profiles of four representative schools, three that are working well and one that is not. We also offer some general observations about successful rural high schools.

Finally, we turn to the problems with small high schools that educators and community members have identified and the strategies that some schools have developed to address these problems.

STUDY FINDINGS, PART 1: Most Rural Communities and Rural Educators Want Both the Village High Schools and a Boarding School Option


Finding 1: Most rural communities and rural educators see significant advantages, as well as some

disadvantages, to small rural high schools. .

Rural residents and educators see significant advantages to small high schools. We summarize below the strong points they mentioned most frequently.

Advantages Seen in Small High Schools

1. Children can grow up at home with their families. Parents do not worry about whether their children, away at boarding schools, are unhappy or in trouble. Parents can follow the unfolding of their children's lives.

2. In small high schools, children receive a great deal of indiuidual help and attention from teachers

who know them well.

3. In a small high school, children are participants, not spectators. Almost everybody gets the chance to be on the basketball team or the yearbook staff. Rural children who might be on the sidelines in a large school occupy center stage in a small school.

4. Small rural high schools offer students increased access to special educational opportunities, such as the chance to trauel and lots of time on the computer. About 90 percent of the schools offer travel outside rural Alaska. These schools average one computer for every four students.

5. With the schools nearby, parents can exert considerable control ouer their children's education. They can keep an eye on what is going on and take action informally as well as through formal membership on local or district boards.

6. Local high schools enable communities to teach local cultural traditions, languages, and subsistence skills. About 90 percent of Native-majority high schools offer instruction in cultural traditions, subsistence skills, and Native Land Claims issues. Over 60 percent have language programs designed to maintain Native languages.

7. Local high schools prouide such important community facilities and seruices as gymnasiums and workshops, spectator sports, newspapers, and community education programs. Many small high schools serve as community centers and offer classes and recreation for adults as well as students. The schools also bring new jobs‹on the average, three positions (such as teacher aide, secretary, or maintenance person)‹in addition to professional teaching positions. They also stimulate such economic activities in the community as construction, transportation, and fuel oil sales.

Disadvantages Seen in Small High Schools

Rural residents and educators are well aware that small high schools have significant educational disadvantages They emphasize that small high schools:

€ Offer little uariety in courses and few aduanced courses.

€ Offer a limited number of extracurricular activities.

o Haue few teachers. The majority of teachers must instruct in subjects outside their specialization. If a teacher and a student have a personality conflict, neither has the space to get away from the other.

€ Do not prouide enough exposure to the world outside the uillage and do not prouide enough challenge and competition.

Finding 2: Despite the problems, most people we interviewed want small high schools to remain the backbone of the rural secondary school system.

In each of the thirty-two communities we visited, local people support the village high school and do not want to lose it ( Figure 1). Non-Native communities want their local high schools just as much as Native communities.

~ Finding 3: Most people want a boarding option as an alternative to the small rural high school.

When we began this study, we thought people would either want the village high school or, after experience with these schools, would advocate returning to a boarding school system. Thal; is not what we found. The majority of community people and principals we interviewed want village high schools. At the same time, they also felt that rural students should have the option of attending a boarding program (Figure 2).

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Finding 4: Certain rural students need an alternative to the small high school.

According to rural educators and local people, the following kinds of students sometimes need an alternative to small high schools:

1. Social referrals. Occasionally, students have family or other nonacademic problems sufficiently serious to warrant leaving their communities to attend high school.

2. Aduanced students. Students who are academically gifted cannot always be challenged sufficiently in small high schools. Students with a specific vocational interest may need special equipment or training not available in small high schools.

3. Students who want more activities and social life. Students who want to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities or who want to socialize with a wider circle of peers often prefer a boarding school situation.

Finding 5: Some rural families make private arrangements to send their children to high school outside the community.

A few rural parents want their children to experience the emotional independence of living away from home or to have the educational opportunities offered by a larger high school. These parents typically arrange for their children to stay with relatives or family friends while they attend the larger school.

Where students are having problems in the family or community or need special programs, school districts sometimes arrange for them to go to school outside their community. These private arrangements are not widespread. About 20 percent of small high school principals said that some students in their communities are attending high school away from home.

Finding 6: While most people favor a boarding

~option, they are sharply divided on whether the state :;of Alaska should reopen Mt. Edgecumbe, a boarding school in southeast Alaska.

Advocates of reopening Mt. Edgecumbe as a statewide boarding school stress the need to provide rural students with an alternative to small high

schools. They also stress Mt. Edgecumbe's historical importance in Native education and politics.

Opponents of Mt. Edgecumbe argue that reopening the school will be extremely expensive. Annual operating costs are currently estimated at $3.8 million for 175 students. In their view, the money could be better used to strengthen rural secondary education by other means, such as specialized itinerant teachers or summer college preparation programs on campus.

Reopening Mt. Edgecumbe, many fear, will drain money and talented students away from the small high schools and reduce the quality of education for the students who remain.

The State Board of Education decided to reopen Mt. Edgecumbe in 1985.

STUDY FINDINGS, PART 11: Some Small High Schools Are Working‹ and Some Are Not

Finding 7: Small high schools have greatly increased high school graduation rates among rural students.

The most dramatic educational benefit of small local high schools is the increase in the number of rural students who graduate (Figure 3). The drop-out rate in Alaska's small rural high schools has now fallen to half the national average. The gap in graduation rates for Natives and non-Natives is closing, and the small high schools are responsible.

According to rural school board presidents and rural educators, village residents who have graduated from high school are more knowledgeable about schools, more interested in shaping the school program, and more likely to help their children do well in school. Rural Alaska communities with more high school graduates, we found, have higher achievement test scores.

In short, the greatest educational impact of the small high schools may be in their long-term effect: raising achievement in subsequent generations of rural students.

Finding 8: Recent national research questions the quality of education available in large comprehensive high schools and demonstrates the value of instructional methods suited to small high schools.

The large comprehensive high school, long the standard in American education, has recently become

back up teachers who demand homework, research reports, and good classroom behavior.

Enrolling almost 50 students, Riverside looks much like a traditional high school. Students change classes. The day is divided into seven 45-minute periods. In most classes, the teachers instruct a dozen or more students.

Riverside emphasizes preparation for college. Students in English read Shakespearean plays and produce a term paper replete with footnotes and a bibliography. Extracurricular activities take a back seat to academics. Recently, when insufficient funds threatened teaching positions, the principal took the political risk of shifting funds out of athletic travel to maintain the academic program.

While the curriculum and organization of the school do not depart radically from the large high school model, the personal relationships teachers have with their students do. Teachers know the students and their families well. A student cannot hide in the crowd; there is no crowd in which to hide.

Profiles of Schools That Are Not Working

Not all the schools we visited displayed the energetic and innovative teachers, community-school partnerships, and focused educational programs described in the portraits above. Some schools were depressing places‹plagued by class-cutting and attendance problems, staffed by apathetic teachers sending an unending march of worksheets across students' desks, assailed by hostile community members, and absorbed in district politics. Below, we describe such a school.

Fisherton High School (7 students, 1 teacher)

A fishing village on a major river, Fisherton is plagued by alcoholism, unemployment, and a high school that pleases no one. Teachers find the community apathetic about the school and typically leave after one year. Community residents find the teachers distant and willing to let students get by with little or no work.

The frequent turnover in teachers has prevented the development of a systematic academic program. Students do worksheets and textbook assignments by themselves most of the school day. While not openly hostile, student- teacher interactions are curiously flat. Everyone just seems to be going through the motions of schooling.

The district office has contributed to the problem by hiring teachers whose first loyalty is owed to the district office, a pattern common throughout this particular district. The superintendent has carried this

to the point of recruiting principals and principalteachers who hail from his home state. While a vocal advocate of local control, the superintendent allows teachers and their advisory school committees little latitude on critical educational issues.

The Negative Culture of Schools

That Are Not Working

Why do situations such as that in Fisherton develop? Students and parents blame the teachers who "don't care, just come for the money, and have low expectations." Teachers blame the students, or more often, the parents, who "don't care about their kids, don't get them to bed on time, and don't encourage them to do well in school."

Such finger-pointing is not an explanation. For different reasons, a negative culture develops in these schools and becomes self-perpetuating. New teachers meet suspicion or even hostility from the community. Experienced teachers often avoid communities that the teacher network has labeled "difficult." Students tease and test teachers, who quickly lose both their commitment and confidence. A committed, enterprising staff working with the community could change this culture‹but not easily.

Finding 10: The size of the high school does not determine the quality of the student's educational experience. Other school characteristics are far more important.

Our fieldwork showed that some very small schools, even those with fewer than ten students, provide a high quality education, while some much larger schools, those with 40 to 100 students, do not.

Achievement test scores tell the same story. The larger rural high schools, enrolling 40 to 100 students, show a distribution of test scores no different from those serving smaller numbers of students.

It is not size but other conditions that distinguish the small high schools that are working from those that are in trouble. In small high schools that are working well:

1. The community and school have forged an educational partnership and support each other.

2. The school has developed some clear focus that unifies and gives purpose to the educational program. This focus (or theme) might be language development, college preparation, cultural maintenance, or leadership development.

3. The school staff consists of enterprising educators who are not hide-bound to a single image of what a high school looks like and who can design a program fitted to a particular situation.

4. The school staff has the broad intellectual range and broad interests (such as dog mushing, taxidermy, writing, art, music, house building, flying a plane) that add variation to the program.

5. The school is in a district where the central office administrators encourage local professionals to consult with the community and to fit the instructional program to community priorities.

STUDY FINDINGS, PART lil: Problems Exist . . . But So Do Solutions

Small rural high schoQls in Alaska face difficult problems due to the sheer weight of expectations placed on them. Schools are expected to offer sound academic programs and recreation for the students and community services for adults. Schools are expected to prepare students for wage employment, for college, for the world beyond the community, and, at the same time, inculcate traditional skills and values.

We discuss below the educational problems that rural residents and educators see in small high schools. We also describe the strategies some small high schools are using to solve these problems.

Problem Area 1: Limited Numbers of Teachers, Courses, and Extracurricular Activities

The Issue

While Alaska's small high schools offer a basic academic curriculum and some activities, many community people want more course variety and more extracurricular activities. Fewer than half the schools, for example, offer separate courses in art and music or such advanced courses as physics and trigonometry.

About half the teachers in small high schools are teaching outside their fields. Some have a broad education and can teach such subjects well. Others cannot. Rural college students, who find themselves unprepared for college level work, are especially concerned when high school teachers "teach subjects they don't know about."

Strategies for Increasing Course and Teacher Variety

Contrary to those who advocate a high technology solution to the problem of limited curriculum in small schools, we found that schools tend to address this problem with people-intensive rather than technology-intensive solutions. We did not find extensive use of such existing technologies as instructional television and audioconferencing. Schools do use microcomputers a great deal, most often for word-processing and drill, rather than as a means to deliver coursework without an on-site instructor.

While this does not preclude the wider use of communications technology in the future, a great deal more thought needs to be given to integrating technology with instructional practices. Assuming that teachers will use available technology has been the downfall of more than one innovative curriculum program. 13

Small high schools have developed many types of people-intensive and experience-intensive strategies to expand their curriculum. In Exhibit A, we list a few examples.



€ Innovative staffing. Some schools use parttime instructors from the local community to teach both academic subjects and local skills. Elementary teachers with academic specialties teach their subject at the high school level in other schools. Other staffing innovations include use of itinerant teachers, artists-inresidence, and specialists from urban areas employed on short contracts.

€ Curriculum and organizational innovations, such as rotation of courses, community-based projects, block scheduling, and shift scheduling.

e Summer camps and other summer programs.

€ Link-ups with other institutions, such as university programs, Native organizations, larger rural schools, and urban partner schools.

€ Travel programs to other rural communities, urban areas, and places outside Alaska.