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KNBA News - Powerful storm moves north from Aleutian Islands

Dec 15, 2015

Powerful storm moves toward northwest Alaska

The storm that hammered the Aleutian Islands over the weekend has weakened as it moves north, but still packs a powerful punch. The National Weather Service has issued a high-surf advisory for southwest Alaska, forecasting surf up to ten feet and localized erosion and flooding.

The storm has also prompted a blizzard warning for the Bering Strait coast and St. Lawrence Island, with winds gusting to 65 miles per hour, and four to eight inches of snow. The marine forecast for the Bering coast predicts seas to 34 feet, and freezing spray.

Meanwhile, Aleutian island communities are cleaning up after winds up to 122 miles per hour whipped through the area over the weekend, breaking windows and pulling off roofs. Cold Bay, King Salmon, and St. Paul set or tied earlier records for rainfall and high temperatures.

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School enrollment on a Pribilof Island shrinks along with the local fishing economy

By John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

Connie Newman wears many hats at the St. Paul School. In the predawn gloom, she greets students as they get dropped off outside.

“Morning, Sienna. Good morning, Fiona,” said Newman. A girl replied, “Good morning!”

Newman is superintendent of the Pribilof School District. I spoke with her while she was sweeping the St. Paul school gym.

“Due to declining enrollment, we reduced staff, and so I assumed the responsibilities of the building principal in addition to the superintendent.

Ryan asked, “And occasional gym sweeper?”

“Yeah,” replied Newman.

St. Paul’s gym doesn’t see as much action as it used to. This is the first year the St. Paul Sea Parrots haven’t been able to field a basketball team.

“Basketball’s a big deal,” said Newman. “We had a very good team, in fact, last year. But even then, it’s a coed team, boys and girls. This year, no, we do not have enough.”

Some families have left the island; others have sent their kids to boarding schools in other parts of the state.

“The course offerings are pretty limited here. We can't offer a lot of the art and music,” said Newman.

Ryan asks, “Do you like going to school here?”

Carley Bourdukofsky replies, “To be honest, not really.”

Bourdukofsky is an eighth grader. She was on a school field trip to look for sea lions.

“You don't really learn that much,” said Bourdukofsky. “I’d like to go to Mt. Edgecumbe next year.”

That’s a boarding school in Sitka. Ninth grader Sonia Merculief says she transferred to a boarding school in Galena this fall.

“It was a better education,” she said. “It’s kinda more strict and stuff. It’s more learning, more opportunities.”

She says she got homesick, so she came back. But she wants to try again.

“I'm going to ask my mom this time if I can reapply for next semester,” said Merculief.

Ryan asked, “But you don’t think you’d get homesick again?”

Merculief replied, “No.”

St. Paul does have course offerings that students can’t get anywhere else. Like Aleut language classes. And the week of special science classes that brought students out looking for sea lions in the surf of the Bering Sea.

Every year, scientists descend on St. Paul to teach about its biology and traditions. The week of classes is largely paid for by the local fishing industry.

Carley Bourdukofsky says she likes that part of the school year.

“I like to learn different things and new things about our island,” said Bourdukofsky.

By lots of measures, the St. Paul School is struggling.

Four out of five St. Paul students don’t meet state standards for English or math. That’s according to the new Alaska Measures of Progress tests.

http://www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu/CAEPR/home/projects/hb278/2015_11_16-TeacherSalaryAndTenureReport.pdf [University of Alaska Anchorage]

A study done for the legislature this year found that the Pribilof district would have to boost salaries by half [57 percent] to attract and keep highly qualified teachers. That’s because of the high cost of living out in the middle of the Bering Sea. A box of cereal can set you back nearly 9 dollars at the Alaska Commercial store on St. Paul. A bag of pretzels? Nearly 10 bucks.

Most [Four out of five] students on the island are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But like many small schools in Alaska, St. Paul doesn’t serve lunch. It did offer snacks to kids last year. But Connie Newman says that grant ran out.

“That was the Alaska Grown grant, which was discontinued due to the budget,” said Newman.

Newman says she has a great staff and supportive families on the island, but declining enrollment means less state funding.

“We still have the same costs even though we have fewer kids,” said Newman. “I mean, you're talking heat and lights. No respite.”

Newman says a driving force behind the declining enrollment is something the school can’t do much about: people leaving the island in search of a more stable economy.

“Our fishery has really been suffering, and we are allowed to take less and less halibut.”

The island’s economy revolves around halibut fishing. In the Bering Sea, more halibut are caught accidentally and thrown away by Seattle-based trawlers than the local halibut boats catch on purpose.

"We had one of our big families, they just took their boat and left last year,” said Newman. “I'm sure there'll be more if it continues.”

The school got a bit of a reprieve this month from Seattle of all places. Scientists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission announced that there’s enough halibut in the eastern Bering Sea to allow a substantially larger fishery than last year. Scientist Ian Stewart  said the bycatch, or accidental catch, of halibut dropped this year.

“All in all, quite good news here in terms of bycatch. We saw some very large reductions” said Stewart.

Political appointees will decide the actual catch limit. But the scientists’ announcement makes it less likely that families will be forced to leave St. Paul this school year.

Reporting from St. Paul Island was made possible in part by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.