It’s back to school for teachers on Wednesday as they set up classrooms and familiarize themselves with any policy changes.
They will welcome students on Monday, Aug. 20.
Kindergarteners get an extra week of summer, reporting on Monday, Aug. 27.
The Anchorage School District is preparing for an anticipated 47,516 students, a little down from last year. Actual numbers won’t be known until a month or so after school opens due to the transiency of our population and uncertainty created by fluctuating oil prices over the past few years. Enrollment uncertainty gives administrators heartburn as they await opening day.
Whatever the number, the students will be housed in 56 elementary schools, eight middle schools, seven high schools and a bunch of specialized schools. In addition, Anchorage has a number of private schools, a couple of universities, two or three colleges and various trade schools. There also are many students who are home-schooled. In summary, educational opportunities abound in the state’s largest city.
Alaska is huge, with cities and villages spread over an area almost as wide and as tall as all of the Lower 48. The State of Alaska is responsible for education outside the incorporated boroughs, with some communities barely able to fill a one-room schoolhouse.
Large or small, they all face the same big challenge—money.
The cost to teach little Jacks and Jills the three R’s is high. Of course, a lot more than readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic make up today’s curriculum. The list of supplies is also much longer than just a pencil and notebook with ruled pages as used in days of yore. A backpack is needed just to hold all the stuff a youngster has to lug back and forth through the hallowed halls of knowledge.
Keeping those halls in shape to get the kids safely from one room to another also costs much more.
In addition to modern textbooks and calculators, working conditions for teachers are greatly improved over those of a century ago.
A teacher’s contract from the mid-1920’s once signed by this writer’s mother-in-law had terms that would be unheard of today. The teacher at a school in a small Colorado town was required to arrive an hour before time to ring the first bell in order to load firewood into the stove, light it and have the room warm in time for students to arrive. She had to prepare the lesson plan for grades one through eight and instruct the children accordingly. She was accountable for making them proficient in the basic academic fields. She had to be sure her students had some lunch and get a little exercise on the playground. It was necessary for her to finish the classes on time in order for the kids to get home and do their daily chores. Oh, and before she could leave for the day, she had to sweep up, put things away neatly, clean ashes from the stove, then chop more firewood and stack it inside for use the next morning. All that for around $100 per month.
The first school in our part of Alaska was at the bustling settlement that sprang up on the shores of Knik Arm during the Cook Inlet Gold Rush of 1897. Knik, then a major stop along the Iditarod Trail, became a ghost town after it was bypassed in favor of Wasilla by The Alaska Railroad.
Ironically, the school built by the Alaska Engineering Commission, the people who built the railroad at Ship Creek Landing, would be preserved as a National Historic Landmark. Now owned by the Municipality of Anchorage, the Anchorage Historic School is located at 3rd Avenue and Eagle Street. Tours are offered by the Anchorage Woman’s Club. The original building was saved from demolition after being declared unfit for habitation. It was moved across the street, indoor plumbing installed and the structure made to conform to current codes.
The first superintendent of schools was Orah Dee Clark, now memorialized in the middle school named for her. She had 99 students in grades 1-12.
The original school was replaced by the two-story Central School, a two-story concrete building on 5th Avenue between F and G Streets. Anchorage High school was later built on the G Street side of the same block. Both structures have since been demolished and the site now hosts the Performing Arts Center. A new high school was built on Romig Hill in Spenard and re-named West Anchorage High School after population growth necessitated a second secondary school.
As the population grew, so grew the school district—often a few years after the existing buildings became stuffed to the rafters. Frequently used as an example of that perplexing situation is the first school in Chugiak, built by the Territory of Alaska and opened in 1950. Designed to hold 50 students, on opening day it found 75 waiting on the doorstep. A smug grin guiding his fingertips, this writer liked to add, “They’ve been trying to catch up ever since.”
It is likely the Russian Orthodox Church provided schooling prior to the United States becoming owners of Alaska in 1867. Little information on those times is available, but could be obtained from the church archives by someone curious enough to warrant the effort.
What the American officials did in the early days after the purchase, however, was to appoint Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary, as General Agent for Education.
He was charged with creating schools throughout the new possession. Faced with the same daunting task as today’s school superintendents, he had to figure out how to do that with the limited funds available.
As a missionary, the answer was clear to Jackson. Several religious denominations had rushed to take the Good News of the Gospel to the “savages” who inhabited the Northland. Alaska was large and there were several groups with varying beliefs as to what Jesus meant when he said, “Go forth and spread the Word.” Each wanted to convert the unbelievers to Christianity. Mission schools had already been established in many villages.
Jackson drew school boundaries based on the least objectionable outcomes, dividing geographic areas among the religious faiths. Episcopalians, affiliated along the Yukon with the Church of England, were given the Klondike area. Perhaps to avoid any appearance of favoritism, his own branch of the Tree was given to the area north of the Brooks Range. Areas on the Seward Peninsula went to the Methodists. The Kuskokwim was divided between the Catholics and the Friends.
The phrase “Separation of Church and State” is not found in the U.S. Constitution.
Jackson saw advantages to the arrangement of having mission schools serve as official providers of education. Under his vision, his budget only had to cover part of the expense. It was a win-win solution that served both God and man.
The conflict that now is pounced upon by groups whose mission is to make God benefitting from public support illegal—and since given constitutional protection by the courts—was soon to come up. Jackson’s opponents, backed by businessmen who wanted the Jackson-backed reindeer industry opened to everyone rather than limited to Alaska Natives, used the Almighty’s affiliation to have him removed.
One downside to mission-operated schools was that many of the teachers subscribed to the idea that the “heathen” children should be punished for using the language of their ancestors, and forbidden to dance as a way of teaching useful practices.
“Assimilation” humiliated many First Alaskans and caused hurt lasting even until today.
So, school bells will ring again next week. Parents of kindergarteners will shed tears when the little ones are dropped off the first day. Some parents will be relieved to have more quiet time. Some whose children are in daycare must shift to a new schedule. Students participating in after-school activities will have new and exciting experiences.
All-in-all, back-to-school time is good. It signals the end of summer and the resumption of indoor events. The kids have the opportunity to learn new things to prepare them for the future. Its weight will fall on their shoulders. Wish them luck.
(Author’s Note: Opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ECHO News.)
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.