Klukwan fights to keep school open ahead of possible closure vote in November

A photo taken from above showing a teacher and students around a table in a classroom
Klukwan School teacher Tiffanie Patton demonstrates an art activity to students in 2016. (Emily Files/KHNS)

Klukwan families and community members are urging the Chatham School District to address the causes of its low enrollment ahead of a possible November vote on whether to close the school.

They talked with board representatives at an emotional community meeting last week via Zoom. Recommendations for saving the school included hiring a permanent head teacher, repairing the school bus and creating stability for the school community to draw students and families back.

Nicholas Szatkowski, a parent and member of the Klukwan advisory school board, addressed Chatham School Board representatives via Zoom.

“There are students available right now, if we had the school to offer to them,” he said.

Parents and community members of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan agreed with Szatkowski that past district decisions have led to the instability, causing low enrollment.

“The solution is, we need an end to the bad decisions that are hurting the enrollment. And how do you tell if it’s a bad decision or not? Listen to the local community. Our advisory school board is here for the purpose of giving advice to the district for exactly these issues,” Szatkowski said.

They said the first steps in re-stabilizing the school is hiring back a head teacher.

Klukwan school secretary Frances Leak said students transferred to the Haines school because of a lack of stability and a head teacher. As of this month, five elementary school-age children were attending the Klukwan school.

“At the beginning of the year, we had 10, and there was another family that was considering enrolling their kids if we could get a teacher. But because we were so delayed, of course they decided to enroll in town school,” she said.

The two board representatives for Klukwan — who are based in Angoon — held the meeting ahead of an all-board working session Oct. 26 to discuss enrollment, which dropped below 10 students, the threshold for state funding.

“When we talk about solutions, or ideas, we really need to be able to have stability,” said Justina Hotch, an educator and grants manager for the STEPS program for Klukwan. “We need to know that we’re at least going to have a teaching position through this school year. So we can make plans. And we can work towards finding a long-term teacher so that teachers know that at least for this year, they are going to have a job at this school.”

The Klukwan school had a head teacher last year, but the district eliminated the position due to budget cuts this year — and families expressed frustration. They say the district hired someone but at a reduced salary, and that person declined the job citing extra responsibilities and lack of pay. This year, substitutes teach students month-to-month.

Principal Bradley King, who is based in Gustavus, told community members that for the immediate term, he is working on hiring a new substitute teacher.

“We’ve been working to get another substitute teacher to cover for the end of October through November. Thus far we have been unsuccessful,” King said. “As of today, I actually sent out emails to 27 teachers who are listed through the Alaska teacher placement program as potential substitute teachers to fill in at the school.”

King said he was looking for a substitute with a special education certification. There had been some concerns about who was overseeing special education services, as the district office is based in Angoon.

Catherine Hotch says she used to be the special education aide. Her job was eliminated, but she continues to volunteer her time for the students.

“I still see the need for being there,” Hotch said. “So I stayed up here and for two years, I did over 100 hours of free volunteer work. And there’s three of us that have 100 hours-plus, every year. I’m just staying up here because the kids mean that much to us.”

Hotch’s daughter graduated from high school at the Klukwan school, and she’s deeply committed to supporting children continuing there.

“The kids are the most important thing here. I grew up with grandparents that told us ‘It’s for the kids, it’s for the kids’ and I grew up hearing that.”

Parent Nicholas Szatkowski was one of many who said Klukwan offers an incredible learning opportunity.

“It’s very rare in the world today, actually. My son is learning to speak Tlingit language, he’s learning traditional Tlingit art, formline and other things like that. He gets amazing attention, because of the small school size. He has interaction with multiple age kids that you don’t have in a conventional school where everybody’s segregated by age. And there’s a lot of cognitive development that’s really enhanced and social developments, by interacting with multiple age kids. There are a lot of really cool, great things happening in the Klukwan school,” Szatkowski said.

He says school bus repairs are also an immediate priority. Last year a school bus driver hit a moose.

“They could easily have fixed it there (in Haines) and had it back in action, but instead it was taken to Juneau. It’s been in Juneau for 11 months. I don’t think any of us would take our car to a garage and have the garage tell us it took 11 months before they could fix the car. Nobody would tolerate that. So it’s clearly an example of the administration not taking action to make something happen that we need,” Szatkowski said.

Superintendent Bruce Houck told KHNS via email Tuesday the bus repair had been completed, but did not have a timeline for when the vehicle would be returned to Klukwan.

The lunch program was eliminated several years ago, but community volunteers continued to cook a few times a week until the pandemic hit. Parents called for the district to re-start the lunch program. They also want to see the pre-school re-opened.

“We have babies in the village! They’re like all sorts of babies, young children in the Upper Valley. But nobody’s gonna want to send our kids without stability without knowing there’s a stable learning environment,” Hotch said.

The Superintendent said the Chatham School Board is expected to vote on whether to close the Klukwan school, and that could be as early as its Nov. 9 meeting.

The community is opposed and says it has part-time teachers, staff and families dedicated to keep the school going. It just needs funding and support.

KHNS - Haines

KHNS is our partner station in Haines. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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