Atka school in danger of shutting down

Kids play outside Atka’s general store. (Credit Zoë Sobel / KUCB)

Friday marks the end of Alaska’s student count period, which determines how much funding public schools receive.

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To get full funding, schools need at least 10 students. But at the Yakov E. Netsvetov school in Atka, there are only six. Unless four more students enroll, this will be the last year there’s a school in Atka.

“Something would have to happen pretty quickly to create a climate that would allow for the financing and maintenance of the school operations here,” said Joe Beckford, superintendent of the Aleutian Region School District, which also includes Adak. “Functionally, after this year, if we don’t have 10 students, it’s not possible to keep the school open financially.”

For every year a school is under the 10-student minimum, it loses 25 percent of its state funding.

In Atka, Beckford say the community can’t make up for that $150,000 loss, because there is no local taxing authority. They are completely depending on state money.

Sonja Mills is the sole teacher in Atka. This is her third year at the school, which she chose for its far-flung location.

“This is a beautiful place. This is a good, good community. The school is nice. The people are friendly,” Mills said. “The fishing is good. There could be jobs. There’s nice housing. The water is clean. There’s so much to offer here.”

When she took the position, Mills knew the school might close in the near future. But she’s still hopeful that won’t happen.

“We’ve got four, five, or more little ones coming up, and we’ve got little ones in the school now. So in a couple years, there would be 10,” Mills said. “But if you can’t wait, these people are going to move away and then there’s nothing.”

She says that’s a troubling prospect for a place like Atka, which has been at the forefront of Unangax cultural revitalization efforts.

“The revitalization is happening and they’re getting this education and then you send them off because there is no school anymore?” Mills said. “[The culture] would be further decimated. You’d see an entire culture just wiped away and that should be criminal.”

The school is central to the community’s cultural activities. The Atka Dancers, who created many of the Unangax dances performed around the region, started in the school. The Native Village of Atka also partners with the school to hold Unangam Tunuu language classes.

Crystal Dushkin is director of cultural affairs in Atka and has two daughters in the school.

“They’ve seen what it’s like to live outside of Atka, and they’d still choose to live here over anywhere else,” Dushkin said. “We want out kids to grow up out here in the same setting that both my husband and I grew up in. We want for our kids the same type of childhood and connection with our land, culture, and foods that we enjoyed.”

Dushkin spent all her grade school years in Atka; her husband grew up in Nikolski. As a student, she says the school typically had around 20 students and there were no immediate concerns about numbers.

But in the past decade, people have left for a variety of reasons.

“We’ve seen so many of our people move away for economic reasons largely. For work and housing. And then for education purposes, too,” Dushkin said. “We’ve had elders who have been moving out for health reasons.”

Now, that means there’s a lot up in the air for Dushkin, her family and her community.

“We don’t know how many families would choose to stay our here if there were no longer a school for their kids,” Dushkin said. “We don’t know how many kids would be left here in Atka if there were no longer a school. That’s why I say the future is really uncertain right now.”

Atkans are looking into the feasibility of making the school a tribal school, as well as considering homeschooling.

But as a teacher, Mills says having to explore those options is like a “slap in the face,” because the money the state will save by closing the school is a drop in the bucket. She says it sends a strong message about the state’s priorities.

“It would make zero difference if you were to take that money and put it into a larger school district,” Mills said. “It’s a miniscule amount in comparison, but what is lost is astronomical, should it close down.”

Beckford, the district superintendent, says there will be a community meeting in November to discuss Atka’s options. He says residents are hopeful something will happen to bring families to the region soon – like, if the local fish plant were to operate for more of the year.

While Atka is the region’s only school in immediate danger of closing, others aren’t too far from the cut-off. To the west, Adak has 13 students. To the east, Akutan has 18.

The Aleutian and Pribilof Islands have seen multiple school closures over the past decade. In 2017, St. George Island lost its school; in 2015, Cold Bay’s school closed; in 2012, it was Nelson Lagoon’s; and in 2010, it was Nikolski’s.

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Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.