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After a year of staffing struggles, KIBSD fills Ouzinkie secondary school’s teacher vacancy

The school in the village of Ouzinkie, seen here from the air, has been short staffed since the beginning of the school year. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)
The school in the village of Ouzinkie, seen here from the air, has been short staffed since the beginning of the school year. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

Two long-term substitutes have finally arrived in the village of Ouzinkie, on the Kodiak Archipelago, after staffing shortages left the school there without a consistent teacher all year. It’s another chance for students to get the consistency they need as hiring struggles ripple to rural areas of the state.

To say finding a consistent teacher for the school in Ouzinkie was difficult would be an understatement. The village’s school serves 13 students, with one teacher for elementary kids and another for secondary school students. The secondary school has five students, and the elementary school serves eight kids.

“This all started at the beginning of the school year,” said Kerry Ivory, the administrator for the Native Village of Ouzinkie.

Ivory says the first secondary school teacher that arrived at the beginning of the school year had issues with housing, and eventually left when they got sick.

“We thought she was just leaving to get treated, but she never came back,” she said.

That teacher left the village the next month, in September, and students at the secondary school went without a consistent teacher throughout the semester. The students attended school online, as well as a chain of subs both from town and a local substitute that would rotate in. The district hired someone else in January, but that person was fired within weeks.

Students have been attending classes and had daily check-ins with counselors in addition to the substitutes, but they haven’t had a consistent adult in the room to build rapport with and support them. Ivory says the students need more from the district.

“In the meantime, they had two different people taking turns coming out here, not covering the full week and these students are falling through the cracks,” she said.

Recently, the district found two long term substitutes that arrived on the island last week and started in the classroom on Monday.

The candidate pool has been thinner than usual and the district just hasn’t had as much interest for rural schools like Ouzinkie. This has been part of a trend of struggles to find teachers across the state, especially since the pandemic. Cyndy Mika, the Kodiak Island Borough School District superintendent, says when they do find the right staff to serve those communities, they’re more likely to be retained.

“The best for us is to find someone that’s going to fit in and enjoy that remote lifestyle and that’s going to be able to integrate well with the community” Mika said.

Peggy Azuyak is the director of rural schools, and principal of all five of the district’s rural schools. She says it’s been an unprecedented year for districts across the state, and she feels for the students in Ouzinkie, but KIBSD didn’t have a lot of options.

“Losing a teacher in September, it’s devastating because all of the hiring tools have already been exhausted,” she said.

KIBSD posts jobs by location in the hopes they find teachers who are drawn to work in rural areas. If they struggle to fill a position, staff will look at applicants using the state’s network, and vet them to see if it will be a good fit.

Azuyak says the couple that’s in Ouzinkie now could be just what the students need to end the year strong.

“A teaching couple has a social system built in as well as a professional system built in, so they tend to do very well,” said Azuyak. “And especially in more isolated posts so we were happy to bring on two teachers to finish up the school year and provide that stability and consistency for the students.”

Unfortunately, the couple are retired and legally can’t take on a full contract, so the students will have another new teacher this fall.

But the lack of consistency could have bigger consequences: it could push parents to leave the village altogether to find better education for their kids. If the school’s total student count drops below 10, the state won’t fund them. Three schools have shut down in the district in the last 10 years. Karluk and Larsen Bay both lost their schools recently, and school near a logging camp on Afognak Island was shut down as well.

That puts a lot of pressure on the teachers in Ouzinkie – Ivory says she understands the struggle to find staff, but the rural schools need to be as much a priority as filling positions in town.

“I know that dealing with the small, rural communities isn’t as impactful as dealing with the high school or Kodiak schools,” Ivory said. “But it’s impactful to us, It’s impactful to our students.”

Ivory says she hopes the district learns from its mistakes in this situation and for an improved system the next time rural schools need new staff.

Meanwhile, a new teacher has already been hired for next year, and is expected to move to the village this fall.