‘Schools on the Edge’ Part Two: Dillingham
ANCHORAGE — “I didn’t really expect to get this job,” Jolin Kapotak said, sitting in front of a 3D scanner.
The work he’s doing at the University of Fairbanks Alaska Bristol Bay Campus is tedious, but revolutionary. Four years ago, a pregnant whale washed up on Dillingham shores. Now, he’s working on what UAF says will be the first ever, 3D scanned whale fetus.
“It’s really exciting to work on a project that’s gonna be, hopefully, going down in history,” he said.
Rotating each bone to create multiple scans, then digitally trimming away the Styrofoam that’s holding it steady — this is how the high school senior spends the first four hours of his day. Then he goes to school.
Jolin prefers the alternative high school program at Dillingham Schools. There it’s a smaller, more intimate experience, similar to the village school he used to go to in Portage Creek, before the number of students there dropped below 10 and the school shut down.
“It was nice while it lasted,” he said.
Jolin’s school closed in 2006. By 2010, Portage Creek’s population of 36 had decreased to just two.
“It’s just our uncle and auntie up there at the moment,” he said. “Just two people, no one else.”
“Once the school goes, you can look at any village in the last 10 years throughout the state, when they drop below the threshold, the village almost goes away,” said Alternative High School teacher John Montooth.
He said he’s watched students like Jolin move from a small village for school and go through a long adjustment period, and said it’s not easy.
“For several years, their whole social fabric is torn apart because their whole town is gone basically,” Montooth said.
Rep. Lynn Gattis in Wasilla is no stranger to small schools. She wants people to know she grew up in a village, and is a product of a rural school. But she said at a time when the state’s budget is in crisis, nothing is off the chopping block.
While changing the minimum student enrollment requirement from 10 students to 25 would shut down about 60 village schools, she said she truly believes it’s what’s best for the kids.
“If they move somewhere else, is that good for kids? If they move somewhere else where they have jobs or kids have great schools, that’s best for kids,” she said.
Montooth said if the state stopped funding schools with less than 25 students, more families from small Bristol Bay villages would start moving to Dillingham.
“Those people have to move out of those villages to other villages that have schools, so it impacts not only the people that have to move, but where they move to because they can, in fact, impact housing,” he said.
Dillingham Superintendent Danny Frazier said the short term benefits of changing the threshold to 25 would not outweigh the long-term harm.
“Dillingham, in a short term, would tend to benefit from that because we would have schools coming in from smaller villages into Dillingham,” Frazier said. “However, in the long run, I think very much it could eliminate rural Alaska totally…When the school leaves, I mean, that’s the heart of the community. So everything starts leaving. People of course say, ‘We’ll never leave’ and then, you know, reality is there’s nothing to hold you there.”
Away from his village, doing work he can be proud of and preparing to graduate, Jolin is doing well. But he hopes to go back one day to Portage Creek, to the life he knew first.
It’s a life that for many other Native Alaskans could be on the brink of extinction.
Rep. Gattis has not introduced the bill, but said she wanted to start the conversation about how Alaska spends education dollars. Gov. Bill Walker has said if a bill like what she’s described made it to his desk, he likely wouldn’t sign off on it.