Each morning, students at Klukwan school begin the day by gathering in the cafeteria, sitting in a circle and reciting a Tlingit chant: “Our grandparents’ language/ It is inside us/ Our language is getting stronger/ It will go on forever.”
The students then peel off to one of three classrooms, staffed by new teachers who aren’t entirely strangers to the school.
The firm hold on Tlingit traditions, mixed with fresh momentum from new staff and a beefed up cultural curriculum is driving Klukwan School’s renewed energy for the 2023 school year.
Klukwan school has been through its fair share of challenges, with district cuts, teacher shortages, low enrollment and COVID. But this year, with three new teachers, a new superintendent, and lot’s of support from the Chilkat Indian Village (CIV), staff say the school is getting back on its feet.
On a recent school day, students walked down the blue-carpeted hallway that connects the library and four classrooms, including a Tlingit and art classroom, and a newly reopened preschool. Each room is large enough to fit ten students and is decorated with posters about traditional tribal values and Tlingit words.
Gina St.Clair, the preschool teacher, guided her one student to Classroom C, where for the rest of the day they learned letter sounds and practiced a dramatic play. The Klukwan preschool reopened in January after a four-year hiatus.
“The district is committed to keeping the preschool going by having a teacher and designated space,” said St.Clair.
It’s not St.Clair’s first time teaching at Klukwan, but it is her first time teaching full-time. As a retired teacher, she agreed to come back to the school if she could job-share, meaning she would teach the first half of the school year, and another preschool teacher would come in for the second half and continue the curriculum she started.
In Classroom D, Jen Marschke can be found teaching eight students who are between kindergarten and fourth grade. She taught at Klukwan five years ago and said that a positive change she noticed since last in the school is the “high levels of communication from the families, the tribe, and all parties.”
Tanya Clark, who teaches fifth through eighth grade, briefly taught at the school in 2006. She said the school year has been great so far, but she wishes there were more students and staff. One of her students, Tia Gram, a seventh grader, said “middle school feels more like middle school than elementary, because we only had one teacher last year.”
It helps that this year there is more differentiation of grade levels, Marschke says “the older kids helping out the younger ones creates a sense of responsibility and patience.”
All three teachers readily listed the benefits of Klukwan School: small class sizes, individualized instruction, place-based learning, and lot’s of cultural activities. “We’re always hoping for more students to join us,” said St.Clair.
Walking between the classrooms, pictures of classes past catches adorn the walls. The black and white photos show groups of children posing in the playground, piling around the slides and monkey bars.
The images are a stark contrast to the dozen students currently enrolled at the school. About five years ago, Klukwan School had around thirty students, but in the past couple of years, enrollment dropped below ten as the Chatham School District made budget cuts that got rid of school lunches and eliminated the head teacher position. The school bus was also totaled in an accident, with repairs taking almost a year, restricting the ability of students outside of Klukwan to get to school. Then COVID hit, and the Chatham School District considered shutting down the school entirely.
The Chatham School District includes the communities of Klukwan, Angoon, Gustavus and Tenakee Springs. “There are resources not available for this district that other places may have,” said Justinia Hotch, who is the STEPS (Supporting Transitions and Educational Promise in Southeast Alaska) Grant Coordinator and substitute teacher for the school. While the state of Alaska allows funding from municipalities for support of their school district, Chatham doesn’t have these resources. Instead, Klukwan School depends on the state’s base student allocation, which is determined by enrollment. Ten students is the minimum enrollment necessary to receive full state funding.
The STEPS grant is an important resource for Klukwan School to provide learning and cultural enrichment opportunities. The grant is an effort from the federal government to support schools to be more community oriented and facilitate people accessing resources for students to be successful. This includes telehealth services that supports students’ mental health, stipends for elders and culture bearers to come teach students, and provides for Tlingit language teaching and support.
The Tlingit language grant is paying for an expansion of the school’s art program, which in the past has been a once-a-week art instruction by Gwen Sauser. This year, students will have art twice a week and will be learning formline, understanding the meaning behind regalia, learning weaving and beading, and carving from local Tlingit artists.
Hotch, who manages the grant, is also acting as the temporary Tlingit language instructor. Marsha Hotch used to teach the classes, and during COVID elders Joe Hotch and Steve “Smitty” Smith would Zoom in to teach kids about “being a good human being, Tlingit values, history, and language,” said Hotch. The elders have since passed, and the school is looking for a full-time Tlingit instructor.
“Following in the vision of all the elders that have taught here and what the community wants, that’s the work we need to be doing,” said Hotch.
When the school faced closure two years ago, it was the Klukwan community and council that stepped in to ensure that education would still be provided in the area.
Clara Natonabah acts as the liaison between CIV and Klukwan School, and manages the services provided by the village, including the food program and free transportation. She said the tribe stepped in with federal money to shore up the school.
For the student’s lunches, the school not only partners with the community garden, but also buys fish from local fisherman Dan Hotch so students can have fresh fish once a week on Fridays. Students also have salmon camp and moose camp in September, where they learn to smoke fish, butcher a moose, preserve and process the meat, and make regalia.
Usually Klukwan School applies for an Educational Moose Hunting Permit after the regular moose hunting season ends, but this year Fish and Game was not able to issue a permit. Natonabah said the school is “hoping to be offered a sub-legal moose.”
Klukwan school is also in the third year of a three-year grant for a hydroponics program, where the school is growing their own lettuce and tomatoes. “Once they start growing the students probably have salad everyday,” said preschool teacher Gina St.Clair.
In addition to supporting the food program, CIV also pays the salary of one of the three teachers. Only one teacher’s salary is covered by the district’s general fund, while the preschool teacher’s salary is paid for by the STEPS grant.
While Klukwan School has managed to combat district budget cuts by relying on community support and outside grants, changes within the district have also transformed the school.
The new superintendent, Ralph Watkins, started his position in June of last year, and has received glowing reviews from the staff at Klukwan School.
“He’s been a remarkable breath of fresh air,” said Darel Jerue, the custodian at the school. Jerue was impressed by Watkin’s on-site visits where the superintendent went “above and beyond” to work with everyone and even got his hands dirty putting in floorboards. “We have an incredibly supportive superintendent that’s really turned things around for us,” said Hotch.
“Klukwan feels like a whole new school this year, ” said St.Clair.