In arrival communities in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, students have access to modern opportunities and traditional knowledge

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment five-part series about the diverse school communities on the Kenai Peninsula.

TYONEK — On a windy March morning, a group of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees boarded a plane at the Kenai Municipal Airport. Among them was Christy Gomez, principal of Tebughna School.

Tebughna is a school in Tyonek, an Alaska Native sovereign village on the west side of Cook Inlet. Tebughna means “Beach People” in the Dena’ina language. After landing at the community’s gravel airport, Gomez was given a ride to school by another teacher and ran to her K-5 classroom.

“We are small, we are personalized, we meet them where they are, we try to give them undivided, individualized attention,” Gomez said. “Students come to us from all over the world, at all times of the year, and we make them feel very welcome. I think the power of a small school is that we can do it.”

On the Kenai Peninsula, several small-population Native villages boast vibrant schools that focus on providing students with access to modern opportunities and traditional knowledge. Tebughna serves 17 students in an isolated community of approximately 150 people. In winter and early spring, students commute to school on snow machines. The school has close ties to Tyonek Native Corp., which provides funding for programs such as cross-country skiing, field trips and the school’s hydroponic garden.

“We’re just trying to grow really good vegetables,” Gomez said, pointing to the leafy tower. “The community also comes and can cut and choose what they want. So it is also a kind of social activity.”

Gomez says the village once had more job opportunities, more housing and a lower cost of living. In the past, when Tyonek was a sawmill town, there were 100 students here. And when she started at Tebughna 16 years ago, there were almost 40. But the population has shrunk, which is a problem because schools that drop below 10 students lose state funding.

“Right now I feel like everything will be fine. Sure, for the next two or three years,” she said. – But then I don’t know. I keep thinking that if this school closed, the heart of the village would go with it.”

She said that at secondary school level, Tebughna competes with boarding schools in Mt Edgecumbe and Nenana, which offer facilities such as sports and housing.

Tebughna used to have a competitive basketball team, but now, with a smaller population, students are more interested in the Native Youth Olympics, a series of traditional sports competitions for Alaska Native children. Some high school students from Tyonek achieved success in Arctic Winter Games competitions. After lunch, students head to the full-size gymnasium, where younger children watch a high school student practice one-foot high kicks.

Classes here are small and individualized. On that March day, there were only three middle school students and two high school students in the class. Twice a week, students take Dena’ina language classes with Anchorage instructor Edna Standifer, who peeks into the elementary classroom.

The class begins with introductions to everyone at Dena’ina. They then delve into expressions related to thirst and hunger. The lesson is interrupted by a Dena’ina chant, which the students stand up and gather in the middle of the classroom to perform.

The elementary students include Gomez’s daughters, who, like many students, attend school with several siblings. Gomez lives across the street from the school in a district-owned building with other teachers.

The groceries are flown in from Anchorage, 35 air miles away. Residents order services like Instacart and groceries are delivered to the runway. There is one gasoline pump, supplied from a fuel plane from Kenai. In the summer, the village uses barges to transport cars and supplies.

Nanwalek School

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

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

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

The school is 100% Alaska Native and Orthodox. Once a week, on what the school calls “Culture and Community Wednesday,” local leaders come to teach things like cooking, fishing, Olympic sports to indigenous youth and the traditional seal dance.

“For teachers coming from outside, it’s really hard to incorporate culture to the extent that we want it to be incorporated,” Bearden-Brown said. “But the community is very supportive and comes and helps the kids do these things.”

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

All classes at Nanwalek are multi-class. As the new district-wide foreign language curriculum is implemented, Bearden-Brown sees this dynamic as more of an advantage.

“I think when you’re teaching in the same classroom, there’s a lot of variation between an upper- and lower-level child, and I don’t think it’s much different than having a kindergartner and a first-grader in the same classroom,” she said.

Unlike Tyonek, the school here is bursting at the seams. Upstairs, the room where teachers once lived has been converted into a too-small classroom. Bearden-Brown said the main challenge facing the school is the physical building, as it is simply too small for the number of students and it is difficult to bring district maintenance workers into the village for daily plumbing issues.

The famous Russian Orthodox priest, Fr. Before his death at the beginning of this year, Michał Oleksa worked as a teacher at a junior high school and high school in Nanwałk. Bearden-Brown said his influence was especially evident in the speeches students prepared for graduation.

“He emphasized to the kids, especially the sophomores, juniors and seniors, that if we look at the school as a community, they are, in a sense, the elders of that community,” she said. “Elders in our community are respected, but they also have a lot of responsibility to be good role models. So he kind of instilled that in them.

She was speaking on the last day before Nanwalek’s week-long break for Orthodox Easter, a calendar that differs in much of the district. Immediately after returning, the students were to celebrate the end of the school year for those starting kindergarten, fifth and eighth grades, and eight high school graduates.

But before that there was a ball. A group of senior girls decorated the gymnasium with fairy lights and ivy garlands to capture the theme of this year’s Garden Gala. All students in grades six through twelve go to the prom and sometimes even invite dates from nearby Port Graham School.

Next: A look at the most traditional schools in the community’s population centers on the Kenai Peninsula.

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This reporting project that originally appeared on KDLL and is republished here with permission, is supported by a grant from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism through the Alaska Impact Reporting Initiative.