While students head back to class across Alaska, the school on St. George Island has stayed closed.
District officials said it’s the latest casualty in a statewide trend where small, rural communities struggle to hold on to their kids.
Alaska schools need at least 10 students to receive funding from the state. After years of close calls, the St. George School has finally missed that mark.
“While there were 10 students physically in St. George during the count period, the state has taken issue with those numbers," said Superintendent Brett Agenbroad of the Pribilof Island School District. "They altered our count to six students.”
State officials say St. George inflated its numbers by bringing over students from St. Paul Island for the four-week period that determines funding. Their decision to change the count meant deep cuts to the district budget and forced the St. George School to shut down.
Agenbroad said the closure has been “sad and unsettling” for the island community of about 50 people. But without full funding, they couldn’t afford to keep it open.
“No way to get around that,” he said.
Now, the district is offering a “supported correspondence program.”
Agenbroad said the six remaining students are allowed to gather at the school building every morning for four hours. They work on their lessons with help from a former substitute teacher.
While that provides some structure for the kids, he said it doesn’t solve the shrinking enrollment that started about 10 years ago.
“The district was going strong," said Agenbroad. "A couple hundred kids district-wide, proportionally in St. George and St. Paul. And then there was like a tipping point.”
He said some families sent their kids to boarding school. Others just moved away, including 17-year-old Kobe Lekanof’s.
“My mom got pregnant," said Lekanof. "That was one of the big reasons. Plus, the economy out there wasn’t going so well.”
His family left St. George in 2010. But even if they hadn’t moved, he said he probably wouldn’t have gone to high school on the island.
"It just doesn’t have as much stuff as Mount Edgecumbe does,” said Lekanof, referring to the boarding school in Sitka. "Like …what’s the word? Opportunity.”
Going to school in Anchorage has introduced him to new opportunities, but Lekanof said leaving St. George has had drawbacks too. The island school offered cultural lessons he can’t get anywhere else.
“One of my fondest memories was Aleut class,"he said. "I used to be able to speak it fluently back then.”
Lekanof has since lost the language — and he’s afraid he may lose his hometown too.
In rural Alaska, school closures have shut down several communities — from King Island in the 1970s to Portage Creek in the mid-2000s. Now, Lekanof and Agenbroad say it’s unclear if St. George will survive without its school.
Meanwhile, St. George isn’t the only community struggling with low enrollment in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. The schools in Akutan, Atka, and Adak are also close to the state cutoff, with just 10 to 15 students each.