Kids from Klukwan School get towed up the hill on Powdah Mountain during ski school, which happens twice a week. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

School can be a hard thing for kids to be excited about, but Keyana Willard loves every day at Klukwan School.

“The school is really nice. There’s no bullies. Everyone’s so nice to each other,” she said.

The eighth grader is standing at the base of a downhill ski slope at 35 Mile of the Haines Highway waiting for a snowmachine to bring her up the hill as a part of the twice-a-week ski school that Klukwan has been running for the last three years. The entire school dons ski gear, loads up in a bus and heads 15 miles up the road, where they meet a handful of parent volunteers at Powdah Mountain.

They’ll spend the next three hours zipping up the slopes being towed by a rope attached to a snow machine, and then carving down the groomed hills.

The ski school is one of the outdoor and cultural activities the school has been focused on in the past few years. Students also get the chance to join biologists to learn the subtleties of identifying lynx tracks in the snow, help elders process salmon during fall salmon camp, and get daily Tlingit lessons at school by teacher Justina Hotch.

For Willard’s classmate Tia Grant, the outdoors and cultural programming was a big draw. She lives in Haines, but wanted to learn Tlingit.

“It’s very fun because we get to do lots of activities. Doing our cultural stuff in the wilderness. We get to practice tracking and stuff,” said Grant.

Just a few years ago, the school was at risk of closing. In 2016, the school cut staff to just one teacher. In 2021, enrollment dropped to just eight students — below the 10-student threshold at which the state fully funds a school. The superintendent of the Chatham School District died unexpectedly in December of 2021.

The new superintendent, Ralph Watkins, said boosting enrollment became a big focus.
“That was our number one priority,” he said.

Watkins said this year, the district put out an “advertising blitz” in the fall, and hosted an open house for interested families. In the fall, there were about 15 kids enrolled. After winter break, the school’s enrollment had nearly doubled to around 25.

Parents and students cite a variety of reasons for choosing Klukwan School, but the small size, focus on Lingit culture, and outdoor programming are frequently cited. Head teacher Justina Hotch said that teaching Tlingit has been a challenge, but rewarding. Hotch grew up in New Mexico and learned Lingit after marrying into Klukwan. She now teaches daily classes for elementary students.

At a Tuesday session, students sat in a circle on the elementary classroom floor as Hotch laid out flashcards on the carpet for a matching game. Students took turns picking two cards each, with phrases like “xat seiwa.átʼ” (I am cold) or “Ai éet yaan. Uwaháa” (I am hungry) to try to find matches. Afterwards, they gathered in the lunchroom for a quick game of “Yéil, yéil, ch’áak’” (duck duck goose).

Justina Hotch plays a Tlinigt matching game with Jen Marschke’s class on Tuesday, Feb. 6. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Hotch said it’s been a challenge to teach Tlingit without a Native speaker, but she has heard positive feedback from parents. Ideally, she said, the class would be taught by a native speaker of the language, but Tlingit speakers are in high demand. The class is funded by a district grant.

Lunchtime meals can be filled with culturally important foods and experiential learning. After grabbing fresh-cooked meals from the kitchen, students have the option of wandering over to the hydroponic garden to pick oregano, chives, cilantro or parsley to add to their plates, which some days include salmon, herring eggs or moose that students helped cut.

Recently, they harvested basil from the hydroponic garden to make garlic basil pesto.
The focus on traditional foods comes at a cost. Using them means the school doesn’t get funding and certification from USDA, so the foods have to be cooked fresh and paid for from other sources. Currently, it’s funded by the local tribe, the Chilkat Indian Village.

“If we go back to the USDA food program, we won’t be able to pay for or regularly serve the fresh-caught salmon we get from local fishermen, or the moose meat from moose camp,” she said. “It’s a challenge but we need to figure out where we can get the funding for the future because those funds are going to run out.”

Samson Duffy-Webb picks oregano from the hydroponic garden during lunch. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Administrators are hoping the positive energy at the school can continue, but they are facing some systemic challenges. For one, there appears to be little chance of a sizeable increase in school funding from the state. Most state money comes from a per-student formula, which hasn’t been keeping up with inflation for years. Because the school isn’t located within the city, it can’t receive funding from the borough government, unlike the Haines School where the borough allocated $200,000 last year.

The local tribe has stepped up in a big way in recent years, funding a staff position, preschool, transportation, library, mental health support and food for the school in part with federal money from COVID relief, which has been drying up. The tribe and district have been able to find new grant funding sources for some of the programming, but it’s taken a constant effort.

Watkins, the superintendent, said that the preschool program represents a big investment in the future. The school has seven kids this year with a capacity for 10. Watkins said there is already a waiting list for next year. Having a preschool available has attracted some parents from as far away as Mud Bay.

Zephyr Sincerny’s four-and-a-half year old daughter Aven comes to Klukwan School from Haines twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

A van picks her up from the Chilkoot Indian Association building in Haines to bring her to Klukwan at 8 a.m. Sincerny said having a tight knit school where kids interact with different age groups was part of the attraction, as are the field trips and cultural programs.

He said he’s not sure what Aven will do next year, but he’s been impressed with Klukwan School so far, despite the transportation challenges.

Zephyr Sincerny helps daughter Aven during ski school, which Aven attends twice a week from Haines. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

“There’s some really positive things that are going on and a lot of potential at the Klukwan School that we’re excited about,” he said.

Watkins said that’s the part of the point of the preschool — to expose parents and students to Klukwan School in the hopes that they will enroll as students. He said he expects five students who are in preschool this year to enroll next year.

“If there is an answer (to school enrollment) — that’s the answer. That’s how you’re gonna grow your school,” he said.