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The Most Unique District in America Part IV: Fly-In Schools

Kenai Peninsula Borough School district officials and student teachers board a charter plane at Kenai Municipal Airport for a flight across Cook Inlet for a day at Tebughna School. Several schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are reachable only by plane or by boat.
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Kenai Peninsula Borough School district officials and student teachers board a charter plane at Kenai Municipal Airport for a flight across Cook Inlet for a day at Tebughna School. Several schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are reachable only by plane or by boat.

On a breezy March morning, a group of school district staff board an airplane at the Kenai Municipal Airport. Among them is Christy Gomez, the principal-teacher at the Tebughna School.

Andres Moon (no relation to photographer) walks past student-made banners at the school in Tyonek, across Cook Inlet, equidistant from Kenai and Anchorage.
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Andres Moon (no relation to photographer) walks past student-made banners at the school in Tyonek, across Cook Inlet, equidistant from Kenai and Anchorage.

Tebughna is the school in Tyonek, a sovereign Alaska Native village on the west side of Cook Inlet. Tebughna means “The Beach People” in Dena’ina. After landing at the community’s gravel airstrip, Gomez gets a ride to school from another teacher, and dives into her K-5 class.

“We’re small, we’re personalized, we meet them where they’re at, we do our best to give them undivided, individualized attention,” Gomez said. “Students come from all over, to us, at any point in the year, and we make them feel very welcomed. I think the power of a small school is we can do that.”

A student mounts a snowmachine for the ride home after a day of classes at Tebughna School.
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
A student mounts a snowmachine for the ride home after a day of classes at Tebughna School.

On the Kenai Peninsula, several Native villages with small populations boast vibrant schools that focus on connecting students with modern opportunities and traditional knowledge. Tebughna serves 17 students in the isolated community of about 150 people. This time of year, students get to school on snow machines. The school has a strong relationship with the Tyonek Native Corporation, which provides funding for programs like cross-country skiing, field trips and the school’s hydroponic garden.

“We’re trying to just grow some really good vegetables,” Gomez said, gesturing to a leafy tower. “The community also comes through and they can cut and pick what they want. So it’s kind of like a community activity, as well.”

Gomez says there used to be more job opportunities, more housing and a lower cost of living in the village. In the past when Tyonek was a timber milling town, there were 100 students. And when she started at Tebughna 16 years ago, there were closer to 40. But the population has dwindled, which is a problem because when schools drop below 10 students,they lose state funding.

“Right now, I feel like we’re gonna be OK. Maybe for the next two to three years, sure,” she said. “But after that, I don’t know. I keep thinking if this school were to shut down, that the heart of the village would also go with it.”

Bethany Moon and Sonya Stephan rest as Noah Standifer practices the Native Youth Olympics one-foot high kick in Tebughna School’s gym
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Bethany Moon and Sonya Stephan rest as Noah Standifer practices the Native Youth Olympics one-foot high kick in Tebughna School’s gym

At the high school level, she said Tebughna competes with boarding schools like Mt. Edgecumbe and Nenana that offer amenities like sports and housing.

Bill Meadows, right, helps Bethany Moon (no relation to photographer) in his class of fourth and fifth grade students at Tebughna School in Tyonek, as Pedro Al Goozmer II and Stephanie Stephan work independently.
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Bill Meadows, right, helps Bethany Moon (no relation to photographer) in his class of fourth and fifth grade students at Tebughna School in Tyonek, as Pedro Al Goozmer II and Stephanie Stephan work independently.

Tebughna once had a competitive basketball team, but these days, with a smaller population, students are more interested in Native Youth Olympics, the series of traditional athletic contests for Alaska Native children. Some Tyonek high schoolers have been successful at Arctic Winter Games competitions. After lunch, students head to the full-size gym, where younger kids watch a high-schooler practice his one-foot high kicks.

Classes here are small and individualized. There are just three middle schoolers and two high schoolers here today. Twice a week, students take a Dena’ina language class with an Anchorage-based instructor, Edna Standifer, who Zooms into the elementary room.

The class kicks off with everyone introducing themselves in Dena'ina. Then, they dive into phrases about thirst and hunger. The lesson is interjected with Dena’ina singing, which students get up and gather in the center of the class to perform.

Brothers Noah and Elijah Standifer work on a project in teacher Jim Perzechino’s high school classroom at Tebughna School. “I remember when they were in kindergarten,” Perzechino (not pictured) said. “It makes a big difference to spend years with students. One of the best things you can do as a teacher is build relationships … to go hunting with the kids, fishing with the kids. You know what they know, what they don’t know and what they need to know.”
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Brothers Noah and Elijah Standifer work on a project in teacher Jim Perzechino’s high school classroom at Tebughna School. “I remember when they were in kindergarten,” Perzechino (not pictured) said. “It makes a big difference to spend years with students. One of the best things you can do as a teacher is build relationships … to go hunting with the kids, fishing with the kids. You know what they know, what they don’t know and what they need to know.”

Among the elementary class are Gomez’s own daughters, who, like many students, attend school with several of their siblings. Gomez lives across the street from the school in district-owned housing, alongside the other teachers.

Groceries come by plane from Anchorage, 35 air miles away. Residents order on services like Instacart, and have their groceries dropped off at the airstrip. There’s one gas pump, supplied by a fuel plane from Kenai. In the summer, the village relies on barges for cars or supplies.

Nanwalek School

Two-hundred air miles south of Tyonek, the farthest school from the district office is in Nanwalek, another fly-in only village across Kachemak Bay from Homer.

In Nanwalek, the school is essentially at the end of the village’s notorious banana-shaped gravel runway. It’s a two minute walk out of the plane up to the K-12 school of 80 students. Penny Bearden-Brown has worked here for 12 years, the last three as a principal-teacher.

“I think I really do have the best job in the district,” she said.

The school is 100% Alaska Native and Russian Orthodox. Once a week, on what the school calls “Culture and Community Wednesdays” local leaders come in to teach things like cooking, fishing, Native Youth Olympics and traditional seal dance.

Students at Tyonek School participate in a Dena’ina language class taught via Zoom. Most of the students in Tyonek are Dena’ina Athabaskan, and teaching Alaska Native culture is an important component of the school’s curriculum.
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Students at Tyonek School participate in a Dena’ina language class taught via Zoom. Most of the students in Tyonek are Dena’ina Athabaskan, and teaching Alaska Native culture is an important component of the school’s curriculum.

“It’s really hard for teachers coming from the Outside to be able to incorporate the culture as much as we want to,” Bearden-Brown said. “But the community is super supportive in coming in and helping the kids do those things.”

Brothers Noah and Elijah Standifer go back for second servings of lunch from Principal Christy Gomez at Tebughna School. Staff in the smaller Kenai Peninsula Borough Schools often serve multiple roles.
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Brothers Noah and Elijah Standifer go back for second servings of lunch from Principal Christy Gomez at Tebughna School. Staff in the smaller Kenai Peninsula Borough Schools often serve multiple roles.

But not all the teachers come from Outside; a lot of the staff are recent alumni, including the Sugt'stun language teacher. Every student, K-12, takes Sugt'stun, a Yup’ik language spoken by the Sugpiaq people, which some use at home and others learn at school.

All of the classes at Nanwalek are multigrade. Amid the rollout of a new districtwide language arts curriculum, Bearden-Brown sees that dynamic as more of an advantage.

“I think when you teach one grade level, you have a lot of variety between your high kid and your low kid, and I don’t think that that’s a lot different than having a kinder and a first grader in the same room,” she said.

Unlike Tyonek, the school building here is bursting at the seams. Upstairs, an area that used to be teacher housing has been converted to a too-small classroom. Bearden-Brown said the physical building is the school’s primary challenge, because it’s just not big enough for the number of students and it’s hard to get district maintenance workers out to the village for daily plumbing issues.

The renowned Russian Orthodox priest Father Michael Oleksa worked as a middle and high school teacher in Nanwalek before his death earlier this year. Bearden-Brown said his influence has been especially visible in the speeches students are preparing for graduation.

Principal Christy Gomez walks back from a duplex housing unit the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has available for educators in Tyonek. Housing is a challenge for educators in some of the district’s more rural locations.
M.Scott Moon
/
KDLL
Principal Christy Gomez walks back from a duplex housing unit the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has available for educators in Tyonek. Housing is a challenge for educators in some of the district’s more rural locations.

“He emphasized to the kids, especially sophomores, juniors, seniors, that if we looked at the school as a community, then they are kind of the elders of the community,” she said. “And the elders in our community are revered, but they also have a lot of responsibility for being good role models. So he kind of instilled that in them.”

It’s the last before Nanwalek’s week-long break for Orthodox Easter, one way their calendar varies from most of the district. Right after they return, students will celebrate graduation for those going into kindergarten, fifth and eighth grade, and for the eight graduating seniors.

But before that is prom. A group of senior girls decorate the gym with fairy lights and ivy garlands to capture this year’s theme of garden gala. All students in grades six through 12 go to prom, and sometimes they even invite dates from the nearby Port Graham School.

That was the fourth story in our five-part series about Kenai Peninsula’s school district. Tomorrow, we’ll finish with a visit to the most traditional schools in the borough’s population centers. Check KDLL.org tomorrow, or hear the next installment on the 5:20 evening newscast.

This reporting project is supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism’s Alaska Impact Reporting Initiative grant.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.