ANCHORAGE – Thomas Paul wove his way through the masses at the Dena’ina Center Friday, shying away from the larger crowds and keeping his eyes on the ground.
The conference center filled with hundreds of student athletes over the weekend participating in the Native Youth Olympics. Teams from across Alaska transformed the cavernous main room into a high school gym, participating in individual and team games and milling around in logoed uniforms with their schoolmates and friends.
Paul’s yellow tie-dye t-shirt was emblazoned with the letters LKSD – Lower Kuskokwim School District. A student at Chief Paul Memorial School in Kipnuk, he said he traveled to the games for the first time this year with five other students. It was only the second time Paul had left his native village for Anchorage.
The high school junior wore his dark hair in a short military-style cut and camouflage pants, and spoke in a soft, gruff voice when he said he wouldn’t be competing until the next day. On Friday he was spending the afternoon wandering the conference center with a friend, making their way through the crowds behind the bleachers and congregating in front of the concessions stand.
There was still plenty to explore in Downtown Anchorage: The first time Paul paid a visit to Alaska’s largest village was for a college and career fair, where he said he was inundated with options.
Back home, there weren’t so many.
“There are a limited amount of opportunities in the communities if you think about jobs as place-based,” said Diane Hirshberg, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
With around 40 employees, Chief Paul Memorial School is the largest employer in Kipnuk. But in the village of roughly 600, where the local grocery store sold loaves of cheap white bread for upwards of $5 and paper quarts of milk for $3.49, the annual per capita income stands at less than $9,000.
In Kipnuk and other Alaska communities like it, researchers said local schools were tied to rural economies in more ways than one. While they were significant employers in many villages, Hirshberg said the skills learned there sent many students on to careers outside their hometowns. Part of it came down to pay.
“It's a little disturbing when you see educators are paid so much less than engineers, when they're in charge of the building blocks of our economies,” said Hirshberg, who researches education policy and Alaska Native education at UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.
She said the dichotomy between education and economic growth had stark consequences. While more Alaska Native students were going on to achieve degrees than ever before, it meant fewer workers were returning to the villages to use their newfound skills to develop sustainable economic opportunities.
Hirshberg, who studied graduates of Mt. Edgecumbe High School in 2009, said few Alaska Native students returned to their hometowns after earning a degree. Some would move back to regional hubs, taking professional jobs with regional corporations, but Hirshberg said one of the main challenges was creating economic opportunities for students in their home villages.
“There are so many things that can be done virtually, but are we actually thinking about ways that we can structure our economies around that?” she asked. “I don't know the answer to that.”
The Lower Kuskokwim School District offered educational iPad applications and other tools for virtual learning, giving local students access to opportunities well beyond the realm of traditional village schools. But when it came to using technology to create jobs post-graduation, many rural economies hadn’t yet caught up.
Hirshberg said the low number of Alaska Native teachers could be responsible. Less than five percent of Last Frontier educators are Alaska Native, and she said the economics of teaching prompted nearly half of all teaching program graduates to pursue careers outside the classroom.
If it paid more to teach in rural villages, more students might be prompted to return home after graduation. If more students pursued teaching careers in their rural communities, Hirshberg said it could solidify the school’s position as a village hub and encourage other graduates to return, too.
Rather than a rotating cycle of outside teachers, she said educators raised in the schools they teach in could act as economic and social anchors for their communities.
“We've got a cycle that we need to work on, changing who owns the school,” Hirshberg said.
Standing in the Dena’ina Center, surrounded by hundreds of other students from schools around the state, Paul seemed overwhelmed. He said he planned on going to college after graduation from Chief Paul Memorial High School, and returning after earning his degree.
“There’s a lot of choices,” he said slowly.
But when it came to the career path that would bring him home and the jobs that would keep him there, the choices narrowed.