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Seizing on Opportunity in Rural Alaska

In the midst of the tumult associated with the Governor’s FY2020 budget proposal I’d like to offer you, and offer to myself, a break from anything budget related with news of an innovative partnership between urban and rural Alaska.

Education research indicates that Career and Technical Education (CTE) can have a major positive effect on high school graduation rates.  Data from the Association of for Career and Technical Education shows that:

  • The average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE is 93 percent compared to 80 percent nationally for non-CTE students.
  • Taking one CTE class for every two academic class minimizes the risk of a student dropping out of high school.
  • The nation is facing major shortages in CTE-related fields including energy, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and utilities as the Baby Boomers head for retirement.

CTE has been a priority in Alaska, particularly in the last decade.  Alaska’s education funding formula includes a CTE component and school districts are working to increase CTE offerings.  With tight budgets and increasing cost pressures (particularly health care insurance) it’s been particularly difficult for districts to expand any program.  These cost pressures are particularly acute for rural districts where small school sizes and distances between schools make it hard to create a centralized point for efficiently delivering CTE courses to students. Here in Anchorage, we’re lucky to have the King Career High School which offer students courses in 25 different technical education paths from culinary art to welding.  In Fairbanks, students can select from six different “introduction to trade” courses or choose a track which can culminate in the student becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant as they graduate high school.  Rural districts are challenged to provide similar offerings, but that’s about to change for at least one district.

The Lower Yukon School District (LYSD) and the Anchorage School District (ASD) are entering into a new agreement centered around King Career High School which will expand education options for students from both school districts.  The LYSD has purchased the former Long House Hotel located in Anchorage just north of Lake Hood. The district is renovating the hotel into a boys’ wing and a girls’ wing with a central communal meeting and dining area.  LYSD high school students from Alakanuk, Emmonak, Hooper Bay, Kotlik, Marshall, Mountain Village, Nunam Iqua, Pilot Station, Russian Mission, and Scammon Bay can elect to take 9-week courses at King Career High School taught by ASD teachers.  In addition to expanded class offerings, the LYSD students will benefit from a controlled introduction to the urban environment; nearly all the villages served by the LYSD have populations of less than 1,000 residents.   For its part, ASD benefits through more class options for ASD students, more efficient use of teaching resources, and through the money the LYSD will pay the district to cover teaching costs.   Both high school students will benefit from exposure to each other and discussions which will help bridge the urban-rural divide.  It’s a win-win financially and culturally for both districts.

Diving deeper for a moment I think we should recognize what this arrangement says about education in Alaska.  It’s more cost-efficient and effective for the LYSD to buy a hotel in Anchorage, transport kids to Anchorage, run a 9-week boarding program, and pay ASD for the labor need to run these classes than it is for that district to run the same program in rural Alaska. Just let that sit for a moment. The LYSD doesn’t cover a regional hub (e.g., Bethel, Nome) where it might benefit from slightly lower prices and economies of scale.  Their costs are likely among the highest per student in Alaska. Kudos to LYSD and ASD for arbitraging the situation and creating something that benefits both! Second, the scars of the boarding school era run very deep and wide through rural Alaska and for the LYSD to propose this program says the expect to deliver something of value to their students and that the district has courageous leadership.  Extra kudos to the LYSD’s leadership for finding a win while navigating the thorny issue of educating rural kids outside of their home communities.

Jonathan’s Takeaway: It’s always great to find living proof of institutions working for a stronger, wealthier, healthier, and better-educated future for Alaska’s people and economy. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case, but one wishes that it could be.


Jonathan King is a consulting economist and Certified Professional Coach. His firm, Halcyon Consulting, is dedicated to helping clients reach their goals through accountability, integrity, and personal growth. Jonathan has 22 years of social science consulting experience including 16 years in Alaska. The comments in this blog do not necessarily represent the view of employers and clients past or present and are Jonathan’s alone. Suggested blog topics, constructive feedback, and comments are desired at askjonathan@apcm.net.


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