Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

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A biweekly newsletter about higher education and rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: An Alaskan school district’s recruitment battle.
02: Roadside Attractions: Convening across the rural-urban divide.

01: Postcards

Jeff Alexander was settling into retired life, after three decades as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in Arkansas — that is, until a friend called with a unique opportunity.

He took the virtual interview on a Wednesday in January of 2023, and received his letter of intent that afternoon.

He hopped on a plane that Saturday. On Sunday afternoon, he stepped off of it … and onto a snowmobile that escorted him to his new home.

The very next morning, he was working with students in Kotzebue, Alaska, the beginning of a semester that would include him teaching social studies, reading, and physical education at various times. 

“It was a little bit of a culture shock,” Alexander chuckles. 

The 3,000-person town is the seat of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, a district charged with teaching roughly 2,000 K-12 students across an arctic land mass the size of the state of Indiana.

To say the district is remote is an understatement. Educators must go by plane or, in the summer, by boat, to reach 11 schools in villages outside of Kotzebue, where enrollments range from roughly 50 to 250 students.

Their biggest challenge? “Keeping teachers coming up here,” says Alexander, who notes that the 140-employee district is currently seven or eight certified teachers short of where it would like to be. 

After finishing his first semester of teaching last spring, Alexander took an open position as Director of Human Resources for the district, where nearly 82% of all students are American Indian & Alaska Native.

In this interview, edited and condensed for clarity, the longtime educator discusses the realities of attracting educators to a community as rural as northwest Alaska.

Q: What’s daily life here in northwest Alaska?

Alexander: I was attracted to come here because of the adventure of going to Alaska. But once I got up here, and visited some of the small communities here — like Selawik, which had around 225 students last year — I really loved the feeling that this is more like a family than a community.

Locals in places like Selawik want you to participate. Ninety percent of everything that goes on in Selawik goes through the school, so if you attend as a teacher, it makes a real impression on the people there.

People will feed you, and I’m talking about all kinds of different foods that I never had tried before: caribou soup, moose burgers. 

I wasn’t a big fan of whale — it tasted the way you think it would: mostly fat. I liked the seal though. They dip the meat into a special oil and that was really good. 

We also tell prospective students that they’ll see at least two dogsledding events come through Selawik and some other villages, and the students really love putting up posters and participating in that. 

What are you doing to address your teaching shortage?

We have all our classes covered, thanks to long-term subs right now, but you don’t get the same quality from them as with a certified teacher. 

We also keep a list of certified teachers who are willing to come for at least a nine-week period. We fly them up here and give them a roundtrip ticket to go back home. Some stay longer, as long as a whole year.

In the meantime, we’ll try to get our next batch through groups like Alaska Teacher Placement (ATP) or the Handshake jobs platform, where we host virtual recruitment events every 10 weeks or so for anybody who might be interested in teaching right after college.

I started in June with Handshake, and we’ve probably hired at least 8 teachers through it. We want to increase it up to 20 for this next school year. 

How do salary and living costs play a role in your recruiting challenge?

Our average is just a hair over $61,000 for a brand new teacher with no experience, and around $109,000 for somebody who is topped out on their experience.

A lot of the West Coast states are very close to the same salaries that we are, so we’re not being as competitive as we need to be. 

Housing here is very difficult to find, especially in Kotzebue. 

We give all our teachers a $500/month rent stipend, and when we hire a new teacher, we give them subsidized housing for a year, so the most they’ll pay in utilities, rent, and everything else is between $600 to $1,000 a month.

It’s a constant battle trying to keep teachers: You’ll lose a few within a few weeks of them arriving, and typically a few over the Christmas break too.

How do your students pursue postsecondary certificates or degrees locally?

We’re especially supporting students who are interested in going into education or technical fields, like welding or nursing, into our Star of the Northwest charter school that is connected to the Alaska Technical College in Kotzebue.

We have a college dorm and a high school dorm, so we’ll have 12, 15, up to 30 district students there at a time doing different classes. 

We house them here while they focus on whatever vocational-techincal classes they need, while doing most of their basic classes online in their own community. 

What are some of the highlights for your teachers?

Our teachers in Selawik do a fall camp and a spring camp with the students. They stay overnight for a couple of days, and will take the students hunting or fishing. 

It’s a lot of fun — talk about connecting with students as a teacher!

On those trips, the students often become teachers themselves, because they are so familiar with subsistence lifestyles, and they love teaching us about it. 

That was probably the best teacher-student bonding experience I’ve had in my 30-some-odd years in education. 

It’s a key thing to get involved in the community. And if a teacher will do that, I think they’ll wind up staying, I really do.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Rural ed initiative wins funding in Texas.The Collegiate Edu-Nation Rural HOPE Project, spearheaded by West Texas A&M University, earned a $200,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to help rural students earn bachelor’s degrees while staying in their hometowns.
  • From college to college-going charity. Jon Marcus writes in the Hechinger Report about how the now-closed Chatfield College is converting its assets into a nonprofit to help local students pursue higher education.
    • “It’s among a fast-growing number of closed colleges in rural America, stripping communities of nearby higher education options to which young people can aspire and eventually go. In this case, however, something unusual has happened: The assets left by the defunct college are being used to help at least some local students continue their educations past high school.”
  • Bridging the Divide. In a conference from April 10-12, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics will convene students from across the nation to explore the root causes of, and develop solutions to, urban-rural polarization.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.