FAIRBANKS — Hundreds of parents and guardians called or visited the fourth floor of the school district building this fall to talk to a Fairbanks school district administrator about how their fishing went this year. The conversation sounds like an informal chat, but the annual interview of parents about how much time students spent at fish camp has significant financial ramifications. This year, about $900,000 in federal funding came to the Interior through the Migrant Education Program, which is designed to help the education of students who spend long periods away from home because of the way their parents make their living.

The Migrant Education Program started as a program for farm workers, and that’s mostly how it remains in the Lower 48. But in Fairbanks, the program recipients are mostly subsistence fishers, most of them Alaska Native. To qualify, students and their families must spend at least seven nights and eight days fishing or berry picking outside the borough boundary. The money goes to the district federal program’s office to pay for things for the students including tutoring services, school supplies, school lunches and life jackets.

Unlike itinerant farm work, most subsistence fishing in the Interior takes place in the summer and doesn’t take students out of school, but it does make it harder for students to do well in school, said Helen Clark, the director of federal programs at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. For example, she said a student who is expected to go to fish camp isn’t able to attend an academic summer camp.  

“The impact of the subsistence lifestyle year-round can cause academic achievement gaps,” she said. “It’s not that it’s not enriching; it’s just that it’s not as directly connected to the learning at school. The life skills are invaluable, but it’s not as directly connected.” 


The interview

Earlier this school year, migrant education parent John Tidwell of Salcha came in for his annual interview with program recruiter Margaret Ungrodt at a small table in the school district’s federal programs office.

Even with a detour in their conversation to give Ungrodt a photo tour of his family’s freezer and to discuss a recipe for rhubarb custard pie, the interview didn’t take long. Tidwell’s family has participated in the Migrant Education Program for more than a decade, so Ungrodt simply reviewed which of Tidwell’s children are still in school and the number of days they spent fishing this year.

Tidwell is a retired Alaska Department of Corrections employee originally from Seattle who got into subsistence fishing when he lived and worked in Utqiagvik. Five of his own children and another teenager his family looks after attend Salcha and Eielson Air Force base schools. The family and a group of friends operate a fishwheel on the Copper River near Gakona every summer.

With an unprecedented early season closure for subsistence fishing this year, the season started slow but gradually picked up, Tidwell said. The family took three multiday trips to fish camp, which more than satisfied the Migrant Education requirement.

All the hours at fish camp are worth it because it helps the family eat a diet with few mass-produced processed foods, Tidwell said.

“In my house, you can’t find a box of macaroni and cheese,” he said. “My kids are used to going through the refrigerator and finding the salmon and throwing it on a pan to reheat it.”

Tidwell said the school benefits and other supplies his family receives through the Migrant Education Program make it easier for the family to focus more of its resources into eating fresh food.

“I could survive without the program, but it just makes things a little nicer because our cost of living is so high,” he said. “I’d rather spend my money on vegetables and fruits than school supplies.”

The moose in Tidwell’s freezer and that of other subsistence hunters doesn’t contribute to his family’s Migrant Education qualifications. Although hunting is widely seen as a subsistence activity in the borough, subsistence hunting doesn’t count for Migrant Education eligibility because the federal government views hunting as a sport rather than a subsistence activity, Clark said. The federal government also used to include whaling for Migrant Education eligibility, but that stopped being an eligible activity decades ago.


A growing program

The Migrant Education Program dates back to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s and has existed in Fairbanks since at least the 1980s. The Fairbanks program has more than doubled in the past five years, which Clark attributed to the work of district staff to find qualified applicants and to word about the program spreading among subsistence fishers. The program now has about 600 enrolled students, and by dollar value is one of the largest federal programs administered by the school district. 

Because it’s a federal program, the district-managed Migrant Education Program isn’t restricted to district students. Program recipients include homeschool students and students from rural school districts who fish from rivers and shorelines around the state. 

The Migrant Education families in Fairbanks come together as a community for events like a book night at Barnes & Noble, a math night, a workshop on college financial aid and readiness fairs for high school, college and careers. Migrant Education also pays for nine tutors who help students at all the district high and middle schools as well as four elementary schools.

For more information about Migrant Education, see the program’s school district website at k12northstar.org/domain/1097 or see the qualification questionnaire at tinyurl.com/applyFBXmigrant.

Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors