Few and Far Between, Alaskan Schoolchildren Are Swept into the Future on a Gush of Oil

UPDATED 05/07/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/07/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

As the period ended pandemonium broke loose among the fifth and sixth graders in the cheerful modern classroom. One group rushed to try out the new VCR while another raced to play Donkey Kong on the class computers.

Another school day in semiconductor suburbia, right? Not quite. This is Shishmaref, Alaska, a pin-size Eskimo village of 450 on the eastern shore of the Bering Sea, where adults still hunt moose, caribou and seal for dinner and children snack on strips of dried salmon. Shishmaref occupies a corner of the Bering Strait school district, which may take the prize for geographical gigantism and pupil paucity—80,000 square miles of arctic tundra about the size of Virginia and Kentucky combined and 960 students, less than the population of one grade in the average Manhattan elementary school.

State-of-the-art technology would seem anomalous in a rural village where drinking water is produced by melting blocks of ice in caldrons. Alaskan life, however, has changed dramatically since June 20, 1977, when valves were turned in Prudhoe Bay, starting a flow of oil into the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, which now accounts for 19 percent of America's daily production. Today $3 billion in oil money annually gushes into state coffers. Much of that bonanza has been tunneled into education.

The pipeline spurred progress but didn't initiate it. In 1972 an Athapaskan Indian girl, Molly Hootch, 16, sued the state on behalf of 2,600 Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos living in remote villages. She charged that they were being deprived of equal opportunity because the villages had no high schools. Instead, the children were being shipped as far as 1,000 miles to a statewide boarding school in Sitka, or even to high schools in Oregon and Oklahoma. The suit was resolved by a consent decree in 1976, and school construction began in many of the 126 affected villages. Today the Bering Strait district alone spends more than $12,000 annually on each student, almost three times the per capita expenditure in New York State. The Shishmaref school complex, which cost $3 million to build, serves preschool through high school students and has 15 teachers for the 165 pupils. Starting salary for teachers is $27,900.

For the village children the oil age has meant the opportunity to travel for the first time beyond the range of the family snowmobile for sports and recreation. "We try to get the kids out as much as possible so they'll have contact with other people," says Bill Parks, 33, the principal. "Last week we flew a group 200 miles to Koyuk for a spelling bee and another group 350 miles to Gambell for a wrestling match."

Throughout rural Alaska, plenitude has produced some bizarre contrasts: Girls study home economics in modern kitchens replete with Cuisinarts and dishwashers and return home to houses with no running water. Students program computers in villages where electricity is a recent phenomenon and study driver's-ed manuals though there are no cars or roads for hundreds of miles. (If they pass the local written test, Shishmaref candidates are flown 400 miles to Unalakleet for the driving test.) Almost every new school boasts metal-and woodworking shops, though both commodities are scarce on the vast and barren tundra.

"Schools have become the focal point of almost all village activity," says principal Parks. "Basketball is the main activity in Shishmaref. Our gym stays open till midnight. All the holiday festivities take place here. Sometimes it's hard to tell when school's in session and when it's not." The lack of running water—except in the school—provides a good example. "We shower all the kids in the village once a week," says Parks, who comes from Yakima, Wash, and earns $52,000 a year. "Teachers are allowed to shower twice every week." The school also is equipped with flush toilets, while at home most families make do with plastic-lined "honey buckets." Twice a year a dentist flies in from Nome and conducts a hygiene clinic in the school.

Cost cutting is not a matter of overwhelming concern. Student councils around the state confer a few times a year over a satellite-linked telephone system and are flown to Anchorage for annual meetings.

While oil has brought satellite dishes and cable TV to the bush, it has also instilled a sensitivity to traditional native cultures, which rarely existed before. The Bering Strait district now offers a bilingual education program as part of the curriculum. Children in Shishmaref study Inupiat, the clipped and guttural northern language, as well as Eskimo crafts such as ivory carving and doll making. "Our parents attended elementary schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs," says John Sinnok, a native who teaches Inupiat and ivory carving at Shishmaref. "Their mouths were washed out with soap if they spoke Inupiat in school. Now we're bringing it back."

Yet certain endemic problems remain. The suicide rate in Alaska is one of the highest in the country. The Bering Strait district provides a full-time school psychologist, Judy Nommik, who regularly visits the schools by plane. "One of the main problems," she says, "is that there aren't a lot of alternatives for these kids when they finish high school. Many don't want to leave the village, but there isn't much for them to do here. It seems partly acceptable to want to give up."

Carolyn Leonard, 26, originally from Washington, D.C., who teaches first and second grade, adds, "Our biggest problem is absenteeism. The Eskimo culture is very indulgent. If the kids don't want to come to school, the parents won't make them. On the other hand, problems you have elsewhere you don't find here. They're so good-willed and caring. I have yet to see one instance of disrespect to elders."

If nothing else, life in the Alaska bush teaches patience and adaptability. The Shishmaref school library received a new desk in January, but the legs never arrived, and when they will is anyone's guess. Still, the desk top was moved into position on the floor. Students step around it respectfully, confident that it will be elevated to true deskhood someday.

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