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Small schools in Interior Alaska warily watch enrollment numbers

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Posted: Thursday, May 19, 2011 10:12 pm | Updated: 1:03 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — As summer vacation begins around the state, a handful of rural Interior villages are nervously wondering whether enough students will return in the fall to allow their schools to remain open.

It’s an annual ritual in many small communities in Alaska, where a minimum of 10 students are needed to qualify a school for full state funding. In the past decade, 20 schools across the state have closed because of low enrollment, including Far North School in Central last year.

The Central school isn’t poised to return next year, said Yukon Flats Superintendent Woody Woodford. Without a school to attend, only two students remain in the community.

“It wasn’t close (to the number needed to reopen) and sadly, the community came to that realization through the process,” Woodford said.

Woodford said the other small schools in the district — in Chalkyitsik, Beaver and Stevens Village — appear to be safe next year, with enrollments in the 12-15 student range.

The situation is less clear in Shageluk and Takotna, where both schools are projected to have exactly 10 students. The Iditarod School District, which oversees the schools, is optimistic but not certain both schools will hold at that number next fall.

“We have projected enrollments, but kids come and go,” district registrar Helen Mwarey said.

The news is better in the Alaska Gateway School District, where schools in Dot Lake and Eagle look like they will easily have enough students next year.

An especially close eye was being kept on Eagle, where enrollment plummeted from more than 20 to just 12 students in the past two years.

A massive Yukon River flood two summers ago was followed by storms that frequently washed out the Taylor Highway last year, preventing many tourists from visiting. The combination of those two disasters left some families unable to remain in town.

Superintendent Todd Poage said the community finally seems to be rebounding.

“They’ve had two disastrous summers in a row,” Poage said. “That’s really hurt their economy there, but they’re coming back.”

The Yukon-Koyukuk School District keeps a close watch on schools in Manley Hot Springs, Koyukuk and Hughes, which have historically been the closest to the 10-student threshold.

Superintendent Kerry Boyd said there doesn’t seem to be reason to worry about any of those schools next year. They all have projected enrollments in the 12-14 student range.

“It really is pretty good news,” she said. “We’ve been pretty solid all year long.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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