A 'warm' school in a cold place Alaska: In the northernmost school district in the United States, temperatures are far below zero and only one day has been canceled by weather in four years.

The Education Beat

January 17, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

"IT'S NOT cold this morning. About 20 below."

Gayla Hodges, vice principal of Ipalook Elementary School in Barrow, Alaska, was talking Monday from her office in the northernmost school in the United States. It was late in the morning, but there hadn't been sunlight in Barrow since late autumn.

However, the sun will rise for a few minutes next week, Ms. Hodges said, and stay for longer periods as the spring approaches. Temperatures inevitably will rise above zero, she said.

Will the sight of the sun after two months of darkness be a cause for celebration?

"Frankly, it's no big deal," said Ms. Hodges. "People adapt to their environment, and people here are particularly well-adapted." Ipalook is not only the northernmost school in the United States; it's also one of the largest elementary schools, serving 800 students in an ultramodern $46 million building. Most of the students are Inupiaq, a tribe native to Alaska, and have names like Ahkiviana and Kanteedang.

"It's a wonderfully warm place to live and work," said Susan B. Gray, who teaches year-round preschool in Barrow and sends her son, Alex, 10, to Ipalook. "The thing that's great about it is that you know people. When you walk to the store or to the high school, people greet you by name. It's such a neat feeling!"

Ms. Gray said school in Barrow has been canceled by weather only once in her four years there. "It was a whiteout blizzard," she said. "The test of whether to cancel school here is if you can see your hand in front of your face."

Winters are tough, Ms. Gray said. Wind chills commonly reach 90 to 100 degrees below. But spring is Ms. Gray's favorite time of year. "Each year we wait until the end of April to hear the voice of the snow bunting (the first bird to return) and wait until the middle of July for the ice to go out. The area becomes a study in pastels. It's quite beautiful.

"And then, here above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines 24 hours a day during the summer."

Necessity being the mother of invention, schools in the North Slope Borough School District, which covers 87,861 square miles (almost nine times the size of Maryland), are advanced technologically well beyond the most glitzy Maryland district. All 10 schools on "the slope" are linked by computer and satellite. All teachers have their own classroom computers and e-mail addresses. There are 750 computer work stations in a school district with only 1,574 students. Satellite video allows educators to teach interactively across the miles or hold staff meetings in "real time."

Students at Ipalook have their own page on the World Wide Web. They use it to "talk" to kids all around the world on the Internet. "We have our own indoor playground!" they boasted recently. They sent examples of art and writing from a third-grade class to cyberspace. The school's mascot, they said, is the arctic fox, tigiganniaq in Inupiaq.

"Some people think we're a bunch of backward people living in igloos," said the vice principal. "That's far from the truth. We may be isolated, but we're far from backward."

The district, in a state known for its inflation, spends $24,000 on each student -- about four times the average in Maryland -- and has a pupil-teacher ratio of 12-to-1. Barrow lifts the spirits of its residents during the long, dark winter with "lots of community and school activities," Ms. Hodges said. She said there are no more psychological problems among Ipalook students than among those at any other school with a similar profile.

What are the educational issues in Barrow? The same as elsewhere in the United States, say Ms. Gray and Ms. Hodges. Teachers and parents argue about "whole language" instruction and how to maintain classroom discipline. Ms. Gray took Education Beat through highlights of the past year:

"School ended in May. Spring whaling began out on the ice. I served breakfast, monitored bathrooms and broke up fights.

"June came. Alex and I flew south for two weeks with family and friends. We enjoyed every minute. But we had to return so that I could serve lunch, finger paint and break up fights.

"I spent the rest of the summer battling a sore throat, bronchitis and, finally, pneumonia. During occasional bouts of health, I cleaned, put kids down for naps and redirected behavior (broke up fights).

"In the fall, I cleaned, put kids down for naps and modified behaviors (broke up fights).

"At Christmas, I sang carols, Barney and the ABC song, attended staff functions, went to a Hanukkah party, wiped noses, took temperatures and modeled appropriate behavior (broke up fights)."

Number of blacks enrolled in Md. colleges increases

There is good news in statistics released by the Maryland Higher Education Commission: Black college and university freshman enrollment has increased dramatically since 1990, from 4,672 to 5,724, a 22.5 percent jump.

And while African-American college students continue to lag all students in retention, graduation and transfer rates, the commission says they are making progress in all three categories.

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