After viral ad offering expense-free living, Alaska community will have school for the first time since 2018

a family
Toni Wilkinson and her kids have been exploring the town since they arrived a few weeks ago. (Courtesy of Toni Wilkinson)

Karluk, a remote Kodiak Island village of just 24 residents, will soon have a school for the first time in five years after its ad seeking new residents went viral.

Until recently, just two of the community’s residents were kids. But schools need at least 10 students to qualify for state funding. In an effort to reopen the school, the Karluk Tribal Council posted an ad this summer offering to pay a year of living expenses for two families to move there.

It worked. Nearly 5,000 people responded.

One of those families is the Wilkinsons. Toni Wilkinson and her five children recently took four flights over 28 hours to get to Karluk from Lexington, Kentucky.

“When we landed in Karluk, there were several people on the airstrip to kind of greet us and show us around and load up all of our luggage and bring us and show us our house and one of the ladies had cooked breakfast for us and so it was very welcoming,” she said.

The family arrived in early September and has been adjusting to life on an island and exploring the beaches. Wilkinson’s spouse as well as their two adult children stayed in Kentucky.

“They put a lot of thought into getting things for us and making us feel comfortable and everybody’s just been so welcoming and kind,” she said.

Between the Wilkinsons and another family on the way, the village has brought in enough students for the Kodiak Island Borough School District Board of Education to agree at a meeting last week to reopen the school.

Kathryn Reft is the Karluk Tribal Council’s secretary and treasurer. She said the council sifted through thousands of inquiries to find the right families to move to the island. She said another family with three more children will arrive soon.

“Well, we’re just all so grateful that we were able to pull this off,” she said. “And it was looking pretty iffy there for a minute, but we can actually now breathe.”

Reft said they hoped to find families with more rural Alaska experience, but with only two available houses right now, they had to prioritize families with enough kids.

“It was kind of like, ‘Oh this one don’t [sic] have enough kids,’” she said. “We were really concerned about a single parent coming in also, but it came down to the amount of kids and how we can work that out.”

But getting enough kids to the village was just the first step. The Kodiak Island Borough School District hasn’t had a school in the community in five years. The district’s board of education voted to open the school with just a few days’ notice. Now staff have limited time to sort all of their paperwork, and figure out what’s next.

“I’ve got to reach out to the borough and see what we need to do to take back over that building as a school site,” said district superintendent Cyndy Mika. “I have to file paperwork with the Commissioner of Education at the Department of Education to request for us to open that school because they’re the ones that ultimately will give us permission.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg — Mika also needs to certify all of the schools by the end of September and even with the state funding of $371,000 for the school, the district anticipates needing $412,000 to operate the facility and pay staff. That means they need to make up about $50,000 to operate the Karluk school in an already tight budget.

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District staff toured the building this summer and said it needs some maintenance but the facility is overall is in good condition. (Courtesy of Toni Wilkinson)

During its meeting last Monday, the school board said its biggest obstacle though is finding and housing a teacher for the Karluk school. The district had a hard time finding staff for rural schools last year. Mika said the Tribal Council renovated two houses for the incoming families, but there isn’t a third home that’s ready for a teacher.

“Not only are we scrambling to find a teacher, we’re scrambling to stand up one of those classrooms in the building as the teacher dwelling and so that’s a hard sell,” she said.

That means a teacher would have a private bedroom and living room, but would have to share the kitchen, bathroom and laundry rooms that the students use during the day.

Mika said communities around Kodiak have housed teachers in school buildings in the past, but she’s concerned that it will affect the teacher’s work-life balance. For now, the district is planning to send rotating staff to teach in the community for a few weeks at a time.

Despite all of the work though, Mika said it’s worth it.

“Ultimately we do have 10 students in Karluk and we do need to educate them and it’s the right thing to do to open the school,” she said. “It would have been nice if we had a year to plan for the opening instead of rushing it, but now the real work happens.”

Wilkinson, the mother of five who recently moved to Karluk, said the family has loved getting to know the community, seeing bears and exploring the island.

“It’s just beautiful! I mean Kentucky’s beautiful too, just in a different way,” she said. “So we’re enjoying that and we’re enjoying and looking forward to hopefully the school getting up and going.”

The other family headed to the village is coming from California and will arrive in late September. The school is expected to open next month.

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