Being Young in Rural Alaska

Being Young in Rural Alaska #12: Growing Up Around Alcohol Abuse

Report no. 12: Growing Up Around Alcohol Abuse

Reporting from: Kotzebue, AK (pop. 3,294)

HOST INTRO: Rates of alcohol abuse in Alaska are some of the highest in the nation and communities across the state regularly suffer from domestic violence, abuse, suicide and other related issues because of it. This is the final installment of the special reporting series, “Being Young In Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days.

Traveling and reporting in rural Alaska, it’s impossible to miss the signs of alcohol abuse, and yet people often don’t talk about it: it’s such a part of life that it’s almost taken for granted. So what’s it like to be a kid growing up around heavy alcohol use in small-town Alaska? Sarah Gonzales heads to Kotzebue to find out.

Kotzebue is located just north of the Arctic Circle. The community recently voted to have a liquor store in town - the first in a generation. 


SARAH GONZALES: Teens in the youth leader program in Kotzebue have some strong opinions about alcohol: 

[Teen voices montage] “I grew up here seeing people drink I’ve heard stories of people dying from overdrinking and I’ve seen what drinking can do to a person and I don’t like it… It hurts the family, too…Drinking can affect the family emotionally, physically and mentally…Fighting and don’t remember the family times and stuff like that…The alcohol and the abuse that I don’t like about this town…” 

Teen Leaders in Kotzebue.

They are outspoken among their peers on the issues of drinking, smoking, using drugs - trying to both educate and set a good example for younger students.  They’ve grown up surrounded by a lot of alcohol: 

[Teen voices montage cont…] “I’ve seen my mom and relatives drinking…My dad and uncle and them and I’ve seen the way they act and I don’t wanna act like they did…After they’ve been drinking how they were, their behavior and in the morning they’d be grouchy and I don’t wanna be like that…It really saddens me to see the people – MY people I grew up with – acting like that….It makes me feel like I’m the adult and they’re the children.” 

Meritha Cappelle is now a young adult in her 20’s. She grew up Kiana, a small village outside Kotzebue; she’s now an administrator within the borough. 

[Meritha Capelle] “A lot! There was a lot of drinking growing up. I mean, it was just the social norm.” 

Capelle says that for her growing up in a place where alcohol was restricted, where people struggled with alcoholism, made it difficult to form any sort of so-called “normal” view of drinking. 

[Capelle] “I would say it wasn’t until I left Alaska that I realized, ‘Oh they have liquor on the shelves here,’ it wasn’t locked up in a whole separate store. There was a different way to drink responsibly or even a healthy way to drink, you know, to be able to stop at a drink or two rather than finishing a bottle in fifteen minutes.” 

Kotzebue voted three years ago to allow alcohol and two years ago the package store and distribution center opened in town. Purchasing liquor is legal in limited quantities and only after paying the city for a permit and a background check.  The system brings in revenue for the city, and allows for pretty strict regulation.  That’s won the support of many community members, including law enforcement. Police Chief Craig Moates says the opening of the store hasn’t made much of an impact on the number of alcohol-related calls that they respond to. 

[Chief Moates] “We respond to a number of calls ranging from theft to assaults. (Sarah: Do you have any way of knowing if the assaults or anything else are related to alcohol?) Well, generically here we say it’s the anomaly when the calls aren’t alcohol-related.”

The "liquor store" in Kotzebue is adjacent to the police station.  

Those who want to get drunk will find a way to get their booze one way or another – bootlegging, homebrew, at a store - which is why some think that teaching youth how to have a healthier relationship with alcohol through moderation could be a more valuable message than the total abstinence one.

Scotty Barr grew up in Kotzebue, he’s now a health educator with Akeela: 

[Scotty Barr] “If we can as parents teach them to stay healthy and not scare them off – you know, alcohol is bad for you, tobacco is bad for you – it’s like you’re fueling them and they say, you know, I’m gonna try this.”

A truck hauling a liquor shipment from airport to package store. Those with a permit are allowed 1 liter of hard liquor, 2 liters of wine and 1 gallon of beer per day.  

But, there’s enough stigma about alcohol abuse, that many moderate users don’t want to engage in any sort of public, alcohol-related behavior says Meritha, like buying a bottle of wine at the local package store... 

[Capelle] “I won’t go there, you know, and that’s the thing – it’s not that I won’t have a drink but I won’t go there…there’s definitely a stigma.”

(From Left) Reporter Sarah Gonzales, Merithe Capelle & reporter Anne Hillman in Kotzebue. 

And while so many people still struggle with alcohol abuse, that stigma may remain. Maniilaq Association is trying new methods in its treatment and recovery programs to try to bring those numbers down.  

Bree Swanson is the Administrator for Social Services there. She says it used to be that the way those services were offered wasn’t successful – helping people get better away from their families and villages meant they often returned to the same harmful environment from before; recovery support groups were often canceled due to lack of participation. Turning that around all came down to dependable facilitators, establishing trust and implementing Inupiaq values. 

[Swanson] “We started out with nobody showing up and now we have 24 in a group, so we had to add more hours just recently.” 

Swanson says their training of Village-Based Counselors helps people where they live - and Maniilaq's starting to implement telemedicine capabilities, too - so providers in the hub of Kotzebue can remotely connect to outlying clients in the villages. 

But turning a life around from alcohol abuse isn’t just quitting the drink, she says, it’s about having work, feeling useful, being surrounded by supportive family and friends, managing everyday stressors. It's really about getting the entire community well. 

[Swanson] “You know you go back into the same community with the same people doing the same things and it’s really easy to get pulled back into that same cycle.” 

Breaking the cycle is a frequent topic of conversation among the teen youth leaders and their advisor, Michelle Woods, is no-nonsense when it comes to discussing this topic with them. 

[Woods] “If you’re gonna stay in the village then you make it a good village. If you don’t like the fact that you can’t walk down the street because you got a bunch of drunks being ass****s then YOU change it and you change it now by your attitude and by what you say to the little kids.”


Straight-talking Teen Leaders advisor, Michelle Woods

And the young people want that change. Fifteen-year old Lorena Gephardt wants to go away to college to become a pharmacist and then come back to Kotzebue to live, work and raise her own family. She hopes to do all that in a healthier environment. 

[Gephardt] “With that stuff gone – no more drunks, no more smoking or just a healthier diet – could really make a difference in this community. (Sarah: Do you think you guys can help that happen?) I DO think that because WE are the next generation, we’re the VOICES and we DO make an impact.” 

And they most likely will - if they receive the support they need to make those healthier decisions - for themselves, their families and the community as a whole. 

Reporting from Kotzebue, I’m Sarah Gonzales.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.



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Being Young in Rural Alaska #10: Pros & Cons of Modern Alaskan Boarding Schools

Report no. 10: Families and students discuss the pros & cons of living and learning away from home in modern Alaska.

Reporting from: Bethel & Sitka, Alaska


HOST INTRO: This time of year, many students at Alaska’s boarding schools are heading home for winter break. Boarding schools have a long and complicated history for Alaska Natives; some blame them for loss of indigenous languages, and some students suffered abuse at schools. But these days, plenty of families choose boarding school as the best option to educate their kids.  In the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska”, Angela Denning-Barnes speaks with some of those families.

Mt. Edgecumbe High School junior Auna Springer reads a book during lunch in the B.J. McGillis gym at the state-run boarding school. Springer, from Bethel, is the third child in her family to attend Edgecumbe. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW) 


[Ambient sound - sewing...] 

[Regina Johnson] “I am working on my daughter’s ruff... my oldest daughter, Ashley.”

Regina Johnson sits at the kitchen table stitching together a long strip of hide with shiny black hair. 

[Regina] “This is actually a Russian racoon. First time working with it, first time cutting it out, which I did last night so I’m actually pretty excited.” 

Regina is hoping to get it done for her daughter when she comes home for Christmas. She’s a Senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka. Regina’s only son, Austin, is there too. 

It’s about a thousand miles from Bethel as the crow flies, with no connecting roads. But Regina knows her children are in good hands because that’s where she want to school. She left Pitkas Point at age 14. The village has about 150 residents.

[Regina] “The school was so small in Pitka’s Point and I wanted to further my education.” 

She says she not only got a better education in the classroom, but also learned to be responsible and how to take care of herself.

[Regina] “And as far as home goes, yes, you have to do the laundry, pack the water, help do the wood. It was just totally different where you had to learn to live with other people that you weren’t so used to living with at home.” 

These days, it’s a little quieter at home with her two oldest children gone to boarding school. There are just two younger ones left at home now.


Regina and Don Johnson hold a picture of their family inside their Bethel home. (Photo by Angela Denning-Barnes/KYUK)


[Ambient sound, man and child voices: “In what... ahhhh, you mistake?”]

Sitting at the same table is her husband, Don Johnson, helping their 5-year-old daughter with a word game. When she’s 14, she’ll move to Sitka too.

[Don Johnson] “All of my kids are going to go. It’s a no brainer for me.” 

For Don, it’s a family affair. He went to the boarding school as did his six siblings and his parents. Back then it was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Don had a long way to move from their coastal village of Emmonak on the Bering Sea, but he says the quality of education was worth it.

[Don] “There’s a lot of students that attend Mt. Edgecumbe High School and become really successful in their lives. Look at me, in high school, I knew who I wanted to be and that was become a pilot. So ever since graduating, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

For the Johnson family, being successful doesn’t mean leaving culture behind. They still live in their home region; the kids go to fish camp at Pitkas Point every summer, and moose hunting over break – so they keep up on those subsistence skills, too. 

[Ashley Johnson] “My name is Ashley Johnson and I am a Senior from Bethel... I want to become a veterinarian. I’m going to be helping animals.” 

Ashley Johnson sits in the gym lobby at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. She’s in jeans, tennis shoes, and a black jacket, with long dark hair. She says she always knew she would go to boarding school as a freshman but the transition away from family wasn’t easy.

[Ashley] “At first no one’s going to be there for you. And you’re going to be starting out in somewhere so new, and you’re going to be lost. And this, coming to a boarding school is going to help you cope with that and it’s going to help you try to build up your self confidence and everything else like that.”

Ashley Johnson, right, walks with a friend from the B.J. McGillis gym at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, to buildings on the upper campus, atop a nearby hill. Johnson is a senior who lives in Bethel, and one of many in her family to have attended the state-run boarding school. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)


For Mt. Edgecumbe Junior Auna Springer the decision to leave Bethel for boarding school wasn’t exactly set in stone. Two of her older siblings went, but three didn’t.  

[Auna Springer] “...and in middle school I was kind of like wishy-washy about it. And by the time I hit the 8th grade, I was like, ‘you know what, might as well go.’ It was kind of a hard decision to make because I was kind of weighing my options. I even had a little pro and con paper you know. MHS or BRHS.”

The pros won out and Auna’s been at boarding school the last two and a half years. She says she likes the busy environment:

[Auna] “If we weren’t busy we’d probably be getting into trouble or something. I mean, that’s the plus side of it. Like you have really strict consequences if you are doing something you shouldn’t be keeps you out of trouble which is really good.” 

In Bethel, Auna’s dad, Mark Springer, believes the education is top notch. Regularly, Auna travels by ferry for sporting events and she has access to the University of Alaska Southeast right next door. Another of his daughters learned Japanese at Edgecumbe and then visited the country. Mark says these opportunities are a kind of a trade for having his children leave home early. In the school year from August to May, they usually return home only once, during Christmas break. He doesn’t visit often either because it’s a full day flight and up to $900 round trip.

[Mark Springer] “...and that can be hard for some families, it’s not always easy for us. It is a long time to be away from your child.” 

[Ambient sound - stitching...] 

Regina Johnson agrees that’s tough, but she keeps close to her kids; She tries to talk them through their tough times by phone  – they call or text or Skype every day. 

[Regina] "Definitely, we communicate multiple times a day."

But mostly she sees them becoming more confident in themselves, more willing to take on challenges. She hasn’t lost that drive either. She says after all her kids graduate, she just might try to go back school herself.

With help from Ed Ronco in Sitka, I’m Angela Denning-Barnes in Bethel.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.



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Being Young in Rural Alaska #9: Learning in Two Languages

Report no. 9: Learning in two languages - Yup'ik and English - gives these rural students a double advantage at school, life.

Reporting from: Napaskiak, AK (pop. 428)


HOST INTRO: Early in our series Being Young in Rural Alaska from the producers of Kids These Days, we learned about efforts to re-introduce indigenous languages through school programs. At the Lower Kuskokwim School District, they have a different challenge: figuring out the best way to teach reading and writing to kids who are already living in two languages. LKSD is the largest Rural Education Attendance Area in the State of Alaska, encompassing a landmass roughly the size of West Virginia. It is in the heart of Yup’ik country. The district employs 325 teachers in 23 communities, and one quarter of the certified teachers are Yup’ik, the greatest percentage of indigenous educators of any district in Alaska. The district has begun rolling out a new method for teaching its bilingual students: elementary students are now taught reading, writing, social studies and science using what is called the dual language model. Sophie Evan has more.

First graders in Napaskiak.


SOPHIE EVAN: LKSD’s mission statement says in part, that their students will be bilingual and successful in both Yup’ik and American English languages and cultures. The LKSD Yup’ik language specialists map out the curriculum in Yup’ik mirroring the English teaching and evaluation materials. Veronica Winkelman, or Atan’, is one of three full time specialists.

[Veronica Winkelman/Atan’] "It’s not the curriculum it’s the delivery method.”

Atan’ says the dual language model has to be demonstrated and practiced by the adults in the school equally.  

[Atan’] "We’re asking English speaking teachers to take Yugtun classes and to learn Yugtun phrases.”

The high school students from Chefornak have recorded Yup’ik phrases and posted them onto LKSD’s website for the English speaking teachers, directions like, “please line up," "take your paper out," or "it’s time for lunch”.

[Sound of Yup'ik phrase from LKSD's website]

The teaching model’s main component is to have the students work in pairs on their activity or practice worksheets. Working together is said to encourage active learning for all students. Student comprehension is then checked three separate times. Yup’ik Language Specialist, Atan’...

[Atan’] "So when you go into a dual language classroom you will see kids with their pair.”

[Natural sound of two girls working together.]

Rita Joekay a first year kindergarten teacher in Napaskiak. 

[Joekay speaking in Yup’ik explaining, how she uses the dualanguage model with narration over.]

Joekay says teachers use the language of the student as the primary language of instruction, so for example when students are speaking English as they enter kindergarten the main language of instruction will be English for reading and writing. The same applies to the Yup’ik speaking students.

 Joekay's bilingual first graders. 

The first test of the method is for students to be able to write a full page for Yup’ik learners, and a half a page for English learners in each respective language.  Again, Atan’...

[Atan’] "Not only do you want the kids to know what you’ve taught them but you want them to be able to apply their learning in a different format, so it’s like deeper learning and deeper practice.”

Napaskiak School Principal Talbert Bentley say they’ve been using the dual language delivery method since last year.

[Talbert Bentley] "Our teachers have really bought into it, and they’re really going gang busters implementing it.”

In the dual language learning model, students continue to learn reading, writing, science and social studies in both language into the sixth grade.

Russian Orthodox Priest Father Nicholai also serves as Napaskiak’s chairman of the local advisory school board. 

[Father Nicholai speaking in Yup'ik; narration over translating into English] "This is what we tell our students, our world is changing, and we need to learn the western ways, our parents were forced to learn the English language and it is important to know English in today’s world, we also continue to teach the Yup’ik ways of survival in our own language as the two are connected.”

He says the end goal is to prepare students, like his own, to be grounded in the Yup’ik culture and to succeed in the Western world as well.

In Napaskiak, I’m Sophie Evan.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.


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Being Young in Rural Alaska #8: Quitting Tobacco for Good Health, Cleaner Communities

Report no. 8: Efforts to prevent tobacco use among rural Alaskan youth. 

Reporting from: Kotzebue and St. Mary's, Alaska


HOST INTRO: Statewide, Alaska’s tobacco use rate hovers around 20%; it’s gone down significantly over the last decade or so, and is only slightly above the national average. But among Alaska Natives the rate is much higher – in some places, more than double - and often kids begin using tobacco at young ages. Jessica Cochran has more, in the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days.

Posted outside the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue, Alaska

JESSICA COCHRAN: Samantha Lindeman began smoking when she was seven; she grew up in Quinhagak in Southwest Alaska.

[Samantha Lindeman] "My mom kind of smoked, she’d go on and off, but everyone else around me in town smoked. And it was a small town, thirty people."

JC: Not that the adults condoned the kids using tobacco.

[Lindeman] "We’d go to the store and get candy and have someone else get us cigarettes, and then we’d have to wait hours before we could go home. So that was never fun having to wait, especially in the rain." 

JC: They’d wait until they no longer smelled like smoke. At some points, Lindeman craved cigarettes so much, it was all-consuming.

[Lindeman] "It’s just like taking care of an infant to me; that’s how it feels."

JC: Bethel Alternative Boarding School helped Lindeman quit; they require students to stop smoking and keep pretty close tabs on them. Having a son clinched the deal: diapers and formula are expensive in Bethel. People around Lindeman still smoke, and the temptation is always there, but she’s determined not to start again.

• LEARN MORE! State of Alaska Tobacco use statistics

Much of the tobacco use in rural Alaska isn’t smoking: it’s chewing tobacco, snuff, or an extra-potent homemade blend of tobacco and punk ash fungus called iqmik, or blackbull. It’s a little easier to hide chewing than smoking– except at your dental check-up. In Saint Mary’s, dental health aide Bernadette Charles has seen signs of kids as young as 8-years old chewing tobacco products.

[Bernadette Charles] "Most times they say no, no they don’t, but you can notice how that tobacco pouch is in the mouth, it’s been there for quite some time. It’ll have some sloughed up tissue or be red and wrinkly."

JC: Charles says patients argue that they have relatives who have used it for years, with no problems; but she tries to remind them tobacco use is linked to many forms of cancer – and cancer is the leading cause of death for Alaska Natives in the region.

Laura Ellsworth is manager for the nicotine control and research program at Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. The program used to focus primarily on helping people quit, but she’s trying widen that effort to include more education and prevention efforts across the region. Tobacco use hasn’t been at the forefront of community conversations, maybe because, as Ellsworth says, it doesn’t fit with the culture to judge others, to tell them how they should live. She’s trying to break through that barrier.

[Laura Ellsworth] "I like to get local community members, people who have lived here a long time, who are Alaska Native to bring that message back to their peer group. So to say, I am Alaska Native, I value our culture very highly. Here are some things I know about tobacco, these are the reasons I don’t use it, these are the reasons I quit."

• LEARN MORE! Laura Ellsworth’s You Tube video on why she works to reduce nicotine use.

JC: In Kotzebue, a group of teen leaders have taken on tobacco use as one of their main causes. They’ve focused on enforcing the no-smoking- or-chewing rules at school – and teaching younger kids about the health risks, and general yuckiness of tobacco use. Fourteen-year old Nyla Ivanoff:

[Nyla Ivanoff] "Like this morning, I saw somebody spit on the gym floor. And the gym floor is new. Smoking is not only bad for the air but for the communities, for the families."

Youth Leaders Nyla Ivanoff (L), Levi Foster and Lorena Gephardt teach other kids about making healthy choices, not smoking...

JC: Members of the group have performed plays for younger kids, trying to spread the message. Michelle Woods of Maniilaq Association says kids need to get these prevention messages at school, because they don’t always get them at home: parents didn’t grow up with anti-tobacco messages and some don’t understand the health risks to their kids. 

[Michelle Woods] "We’ve had reports back that parents will use chew tobacco as a reward for good behavior; if a toddler is crying, they’ll use it and put it in their gums to calm them."

Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue, Alaska

JC: Iqmik has come to be associated with Alaska Native traditions; one study showed people who use it are more likely to participate in subsistence activities, to be actively engaged in their Alaska Native culture. But as anti-tobacco advocates see it, since tobacco was introduced to Alaska Natives by westerners, none of its forms are truly traditional. Elmer Howarth Junior is a tobacco cessation counselor for Maniilaq. 

[Elmer Howarth Junior] "It isn’t in our culture but it kind of got adopted in, you know you go hunting you see your dad chew or smoke a cigarette and you start too. So we’re trying to break that tradition - that non-tradition - and restore who we are as Alaska Natives."

• LEARN MORE! Anchorage Daily News article on Iqmik

JC: It’s a message he hopes will catch on. Two-thirds of underage users report they get their tobacco from others in the community.  So successfully reducing tobacco use isn’t just about individual habits, it’s about addressing the social norms of entire communities.

With help from Sarah Gonzales and Anne Hillman, I’m Jessica Cochran.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.





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Web Extra! Getting an Early Head Start in Rural Alaska

image via

LAST WEEK'S STORY in our Being Young in Rural Alaska reporting series addressed the need for more childcare in some rural Alaska hubs and towns. In other rural Alaska villages, jobs are scarce and unemployment is high, so there may not be much demand for full-time childcare. But there is still a need for early education programs, to make sure children are ready for school when the time comes.

Rural Cap operates Head Start programs in many Alaska communities: some are half-day or full-day programs, and some are home visit programs. During home visits, Head Start staff watch how kids are developing and reaching milestones, play games with them, and answer questions for parents. In those communities, Head Start also hosts “group socials” to get all the families together.

Jessica Cochran attended a group social in Saint Mary’s and spoke with program manager Bay Johnson and some of the parents there.



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Being Young in Rural Alaska #7: Solving the Childcare Crisis in Rural Alaska

Report no. 7: A lack of early childcare in rural Alaska is spawning creative and cultural solutions.

Reporting from: Barrow and Bethel, Alaska

HOST INTRO: Finding quality, affordable childcare for young children can be a challenge anywhere in Alaska. It’s especially difficult in rural Alaska’s hub communities where the cost of living is high and space is often hard to find. The lack of childcare becomes a factor in attracting professionals to jobs at regional health and other organizations. In the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days, Anne Hillman takes a look at how some communities are trying to meet the challenge.

Image via

A Busy Bees classroom in action in Bethel, AK...

ANNE HILLMAN: At Ilisagvik College in Barrow, president Pearl Brower tries to concentrate on an interview, but she’s a little distracted:

[Sound of baby... "Do you want to go sit with auntie?"]

Her 10-month old daughter is crawling into the hallway; she had a babysitter problem this morning:

[Pearl Brower] "We don’t have a formalized daycare here so that makes it very difficult because its all personal caregivers."

Brower is not alone. April Blevins struggled to find childcare when she first moved to Bethel, where there are currently no licensed childcare facilities for children under three. 

[April Blevins] "And when I went to visit babysitters, you would see up to 12 children with one provider and in my mind it was just not a safe, or an environment I would want my child in."

So a cousin came to live with her.

[Blevins] "And then the following year, me and about four other friends hired a nanny through a nanny service and she came up and we provided housing and she kept our five children."

Later, Blevins did find home care she was happy with.  

Marcey Bish, childcare program manager for the state, says the biggest hurdle for many providers getting licensed is background checks: every person living in the home must pass them, not just the primary care provider.  

[Marcey Bish] "So a lot times there’s barriers that come up as part of those checks that do not allow somebody or a family member to move forward with the licensing process."

And many people do home day care for only a few years, while their children are young. Child care centers struggle to be able to pay decent wages; staff turnover is high and it can be hard to find a qualified person to be the facility administrator under licensing rules. Stephanie Berglund is director of thread, Alaska’s childcare referral agency; she says it’s not just a rural problem. Statewide, most parents can’t afford to pay what it takes to run an independent, quality early learning childcare facility. 

Those are statewide issues. Even in urban areas, the best childcare programs are subsidized by employers. That’s how April Blevins is trying to meet the need in Bethel; she works for the Lower Kuskokwim School district and manages its “Busy Bees” child care program for children ages 3-5. School district employees have preference for spots at the school, and the waiting list is long. LKSD is opening a second facility, for children as young as 6 weeks, and expects it to be full right away. The staff is employed by the district, so they have better benefits than an independent facility could offer. And they have donated space:

[Blevins] "If it hadn’t been for the Bethel alternative school offering us a space, it would have been difficult for us to expand." 

Families in Barrow and other North Slope communities are grappling with two problems: a lack of childcare facilities and a loss of language. So staff at Ilisagvik College created a combined solution - the Language Nest, an early childhood language immersion program. 

[Classroom sound - singing Row Your Boat in Inupiaq.] 

Teacher Tuuqlak Diaz sings “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in Inupiaq in a room that looks like a typical preschool, except every bit of decoration, from the toy caribou to the dolls in the tent, reflect life on the North Slope. 

[Tuuqlak Diaz] “The language, it’s going to be instilled in their hearts in the beginning and it’s going to go along as they become adults.”  

The Language Nest just opened and eventually will accept students ages 0 to 3. While at the school the kids will only listen to and speak Inupiaq. 

[Martha Stackhouse] “You just say simple things, simple commands that you usually use in the home and that’s what we’re gonna do.”  

That’s teacher Martha Stackhouse. She says that by teaching the children Inupiaq with words that they would typically use at home, they will also teach parents the language. And kids will only be accepted to the program if their parents commit to being involved in the classroom at least 8 hours per month.

Martha Stackhouse, Tuuqlak Diaz & Mary Sage 


Program director Mary Sage says the Language Nest is part of Ilisagvik’s larger Inupiaq Early Learning Degree. 

[Mary Sage] “Under the business track there will be some courses to help them establish their own language nest in their home anywhere on the North Slope.”  

Future teachers can earn school credit by working in the current Language Nest, and the college will teach how to get state daycare licenses. The North Slope Borough is also working to address the need, with a childcare task force looking at re-opening a borough-run facility. Across the state, as new health care centers and school buildings are built, advocates are pushing to add to the plans, to make space for the care and education of the very youngest Alaskans. 

With help from Jessica Cochran, I’m Anne Hillman. 

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.


This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.



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Being Young in Rural Alaska #6: Hybrid High Schools Help Kids Imagine Their Futures


Report no. 6: An alternative high school concept is helping rural youth graduate.

Reporting from: Bethel, Alaska (pop. 6,219)

Alaska’s high school graduation rate lags behind the nation - and Alaska Natives are more likely to drop out of school than others. In rural Alaska, high school students who have their sights set on graduation may not be sure what to do next. In the next installment of our “Being Young in Rural Alaska” series, from the producers of Kids These Days, reporter Mark Arehart looks at an idea designed to keep kids in high school, by giving them a glimpse of their possible futures.

(image via Andrea Pokrzywinski/ACE Academy)

A student at the Aviation Career Education Academy


  [natural sound: bell, kids chatting]

MARK AREHART: Usually this sound [bell] means it’s time to pack up and move on to the next class. 

Not these kids, though. They are prepping for the ACT college admissions, and they work straight through the bell. They come from villages across the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta to Bethel for a special program, one that’s not just for kids with straight A’s. 

[Daniel Inman] “I was actually failing high school for my first two years. So this is a great was for me to get started again.”

That’s Daniel Inman, he’s a junior from Toksook Bay. He and his classmates are enrolled in accelerated math and science classes, aimed at preparing them for college and eventual careers. 

[Daniel Inman] “Right now I’m taking a full year of chemistry and algebra two in half a year.”

Not all village schools can offer the upper level science and math classes students need for some college programs; so this program – called RANSEP - has students split their time between their home villages, Bethel, and a summer session at UAA. 

(image source)

RANSEP students learn how to build computers


For the Lower Kuskokwim School District, the college prep program is at the center of a larger idea: the hybrid high school. 

It’s an effort that brings village students to Bethel for intense learning segments, ranging from a week to an entire semester, then sends them back to their villages better prepared for the next step. Assistant Superintendent Dan Walker.

[Dan Walker] “The whole idea of a hybrid high school would be to find ways to have a positive effect on graduation rate.”

And Walker says to do that, schools need to keep kids engaged.

[Walker] “It’s how do we go about creating that environment, where kids… they want to be at school.  So it’s not the only thing, we have to have really high standards in reading, writing, math, science, social studies all of those things.  But what we’re finding is that we also have to have these other highly engaging, motivating activities for kids that keep them excited about school.  And that’s the whole idea behind this.”

[Plane assembly sound.]

Another branch of LKSD’s hybrid high-school is the Aviation Career Education Academy, or ACE, a special week-long program that also brings kids in to Bethel from villages across the region - kids like Bruce Simons, a 7th grader from Toksook Bay.

[Bruce Simons] “I want to be a pilot when I grow up like my dad. So I can explore Alaska."

Bruce and other students jump in the cockpit of an old plane used for instruction at the local flight school hangar. 

The ACE program is giving kids a chance to delve into how aviation works, both in the classroom and in the field.  They are learning about everything from the right conditions for flight…

[Simons] “If there’s turbulence you can’t fly and look at the forecast before you take off.”

… to how to actually put the wings on a plane.

(image via Andrea Pokrzywinski/ACE Academy)


[Andrea Pokrzywinski] “We have 23 students this year.” 

Andrea Pokrzywinski directs the Ace program.

[Pokrzywinski] “And we had well over 84 applications, so lots of interest.” 

She says students were picked based on the essays they wrote, not just the grades that they’ve made.  

Again, Dan Walker of LKSD:

[Walker] “Aviation is huge here in the YK Delta and we’ve got lots of kids who are interested in aviation careers.”

And that’s the reason Walker says the Hybrid High School has been a success; it gives kids that have dreams of growing up and being a doctor or a pilot the tools to learn how to do that. 

Kids like Daniel Inman. 

[Inman] “It’s given me my motivation back. It’s made it so I want to succeed and I want to get to college.  And I want good things for my life again.”

Similar programs to LKSD’s Hybrid High School are in place in Nenana and in the Nome and Bering Straights school districts.

Reporting from Bethel, I’m Mark Arehart.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule. 

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program. 


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Being Young in Rural Alaska #5: It's Takes a Village to Prevent Youth Suicide

Report no. 5: How one Community-wide Effort to Prevent Suicide is Helping Kids to Thrive

Reporting from: Kake, Alaska (pop. 561)

While recent reports show the suicide rate falling slightly within the state, Alaska still has the highest rate in the nation – especially among Alaska Native young men. One community in Southeast had nearly the highest rate in the nation back in the 1980's, but today they see almost no suicide in their village. In the next installment of our “Being Young in Rural Alaska” series, Sarah Gonzales goes to Kake to learn about what it means to successfully prevent suicide.


[ambient teen center noise]  

SARAH GONZALES: Here at the Boys and Girls club in Kake, Alaska, teens gather after school to play pool and video games. Scott Jackson is their mentor. A man in his 30’s, what he lived through as a child now accounts for his job as a suicide prevention counselor.

[Scott Jackson] "Just being here in the 80’s during the epidemic when I was a young man, a young kid, it was a little difficult losing the family members that I did which was cousins and uncles and a cousin that was like a brother to me, so in the last couple of years I decided that was a field that I really wanted to partake in.”

SG: In Kake, residents remember “The Epidemic” as a dark and difficult time during the 80’s: 15 young people took their own lives in two years. Joel Jackson was the local chief of police during the epidemic - when he was barely 20 years old. 

[Joel Jackson] “It brought it to light…You know, everybody was going through it when it started happening, it was like shellshock. It was one after the other and it uh kinda caught everybody off guard. We had some suicides before but nothing like that. It was all due to alcohol.” 

SG: The residents recognized the need to cope with this immediately and it's why the decided that talking openly and honestly - as a community – was the only way to heal.

Kake resident Anthony Gastelum is a suicide survivor himself and he’s candid about his past struggles with drugs and alcohol. Today, he’s been sober for almost 20 years and he works in suicide prevention with youth.  He knows from experience that successful prevention is so much more than a one-off class or a pamphlet you hand to kids saying don’t do it. It’s learning Tlingit dances, it’s a safe place to do homework, and it’s helping adults heal from substance abuse and alcoholism.

[Anthony Gastelum] “Being around adults that live a clean and sober life and can learn by example is very attractive to the students that are involved in the things we do in the community.” 

SG: Gastelum says that if you asked them, most of the kids in Kake wouldn’t pinpoint suicide as an existing issue in their village today.  And he likes it that way. He’s working to help to create a physically and mentally healthy environment for these youth to grow up in.

[Gastelum] “…and you know it is true that it does take a whole community to raise children.”

Kake students mugging for the camera...

SG: Community efforts like culture camps for kids teach traditional knowledge, instilling a strong sense of place and self in the residents – this year Kake held it’s first adult culture camp. 

Research shows that indigenous people who live in communities where they are able to participate in traditional activities will rate their levels of happiness higher than those who live in communities where they feel detached. Doing things like hunting, fishing and - carving. 

[Joel Jackson] “When you carve, for me anyway, it’s like putting my mind at ease.”

SG: Former police chief Joel Jackson started a carving group for boys and men of all ages – they create duck calls, canoe paddles – but the main goal of this group isn’t making wooden items. 

[Jackson] “And when you’re carving and you’re dealing with sharp knives you basically have to concentrate. And everything else that is bothering you – well, first of all you have to have your mind in a good state - and it’s just more or less trying to get them to, you know, put their things, whatever’s bothering them, aside to put their mind at ease and, it seems to work.”

A young student's Tlingit class homework...

[Extended cut - SG: Former Kake resident 24-year old Megan Gregory is attempting to partner her suicide prevention project with the South East Regional Health Consortium in Juneau with existing organizations that already know how to get rural kids involved, - organizations like 4-H.

[Megan Gregory] “The benefits of 4H in rural Alaska are bridging the gap between elders and youth, teaching them about sustainability, how to be leaders in their communities. You’re getting these kids to network, not only with their peers but also with adults, and also just showing them a healthy way of life because I honestly feel that a healthy body equals a healthy mind.” - end ext. cut]

SG: 36-year old Evon Peter from Arctic Village also struggled with growing up in an unhealthy environment. Today he is making a film about suicide prevention and he also hosts workshops in rural Alaska, bringing the idea of “cultural healing” to entire communities, empowering people to health. 

[Evon Peter] “It’s kinda this coupling of raising awareness, healing and the pursuit of self-determination. And I think when those all meet up and come together we’re pursuing something that is so positive and so valuable to ourselves and to future generations and it just makes sense.”

SG: His work acknowledges how historical traumas like colonization and assimilation led to loss of traditional ways, while institutional abuses like punishment for speaking indigenous language only further exacerbated a deep collective sadness. Peter says self-determination is key to future prevention effort.

[Peter] “Being able to be in control of the direction of our destiny. I mean it’s what all people want, to be able to self-govern ourselves. To have educational institutions, economic institutions , social, government institutions that reflect our values. What we believe in, what’s important to us as a people moving forward.”

Kake has the tallest totem pole in the world at 128 feet!

[Extended cut - SG: Like Peter, Wilbur Brown, Jr. has learned during his years as the Behavioral Health Program manager at the Southeast Regional Health Consortium in Sitka that active listening, engaged talking are key. He knows firsthand what suicide prevention success looks like because he, too, grew up in Kake, living through the epidemic in the 80’s - 

[Wilbur Brown, Jr.] “Bottom line the goal is out kids grow up in a healthier environment and have a long productive life. For years we’ve been riddled with suicide, alcohol, negative thinking about our people, I want to work with these youth – raising awareness of our culture, telling them that you’re strong in your culture, you’re strong in who you are, you’re strong in your community. If they’re going to grow up strong hey have to know where they come from.” - end ext. cut]  

It’s a message that bears repeating – especially in the communities where there is still awareness to be raised, lots of listening needed and cultural healing to be done. And communities like Kake which have significantly reduced their suicide rate are positive proof that this holistic, out-in-the-open, community-wide method will help kids to live - better lives.

Reporting from Kake, I’m Sarah Gonzales.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.



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Being Young in Rural Alaska #4: Whales & Word Problems - Combining Culture & Academics

Report no. 4: How one school district successfully combined culture + academics

Reporting from: Barrow, Alaska (pop. ~4000)

[Alaska News Nightly host intro] It’s hard to get excited about school when you’re reading a typical textbook written in the Midwest, and you live in a place with no trees, no sidewalks, and no elevators. That’s why educators on the North Slope are making a change. In the next installment of our “Being Young in Rural Alaska” series from the Producers of Kids These Days!, reporter Anne Hillman looks at how the North Slope Borough School District is revamping the way they teach to help kids connect to academics and culture all at the same time.

image source 

ANNE HILLMAN: When Robin Stockton started teaching math in the North Slope Borough 16 years ago, she did it like everyone in the Lower 48, with examples like the arc of a foul ball to teach parabolas. 

[Stockton: “They’d have it for one day but then they wouldn’t. It only made sense in my four walls. When you can’t apply it to anything, it doesn’t stick.”]

AH: So she made the math lessons apply to her student’s lives. 

[Stockton: “Tying quad functions to whale bomb or to a jumpers height, it makes sense, it sticks, that’s the important part.”]

AH: The problems with standard teaching examples don’t start with abstract math; it starts with the books kids read in elementary school. Kids can’t relate to climbing trees or feeding chickens in a big red barn - those things don’t exist here. They know more about riding snow machines over the tundra and butchering whales with their families. 

And that’s the motivation behind the North Slope Borough School District’s new teaching curriculum. It systemically incorporates Inupiat culture into every subject while still meeting all of the state educational standards.

North Slope Borough in red. image source

AH: School Board President Debby Edwardson says the board and the community have been trying to incorporate Inupiat culture for years. 

[Edwardson: “What we had done before was create lots of units in the classroom. What we’re doing now is completely regenerating our system with an Inupiat base. We’ve never done that before.”]

AH: The first step was to talk to all eight of the communities in the district and find out what they wanted their kids to know and be like when they graduated from high school. They used that to develop the Inupiat Learning Framework, which lays out the core values and ways of life that the community wants taught in their schools. Then, Robin Stockton and a team of other teachers and administrators used a proven method of curriculum development called Understanding By Design. 

[Stockton: “The whole UBD process is having the end student in mind. And students being able to take the content they’ve learned in thirteen years of schooling and apply it to real world tasks.”] 

The symbol of the Inupiat Learning Framework which includes 4 "realms": environmental, historical, community and individual 

AH: The new system meets the state’s standards and the community’s standards in an effort to get kids more motivated and involved. And district officials say it’s working. Attendance rates are at (the highest ever) *record highs* for the alternative school, the number of office referrals at the elementary school has been cut in half, and the drop-out rate is almost halved as well. 

Fifteen year old Donna Sabo says that when last year’s end-of-the-year writing prompt focused on families, it made it easier for her to show her abilities. 

[Sabo: “It was a good change because we know more about it. We understand it. Better than ‘what do you know about the trees or…. I don’t know, politics'…somewhere around there.”] 

AH: The culture-focused curriculum also gives students the chance to learn more about their identities, something that school didn’t used to do. Sabo says she stopped doing cultural activities because she was too busy with academics and sports. 

[Sabo: “I feel like now that I’m older I made a bad decision because I didn’t continue on with my cultural…whatevers.”]

AH: Now, as the district undergoes the lengthy process of cultural integration, students won’t have to choose between culture and academics. Middle school principal Carla Seavey says it gives the students a forum for educating each other. 

[Seavey: “You might think that they all have the same experiences in terms of hunting or subsistence lifestyle, but they don’t all necessarily. A lot of our kids can learn from their peers about their own culture.”] 

AH: And they can also learn about other cultures. Only 60 percent of the students in Barrow come from the region. Others hail from around the world, including Samoa and the Philippines. Middle school teacher Tony Bisson says the framework helps the students connect to each other to see how they are similar. 

[Bisson: “I had one boy yesterday who said ‘yeah, I’m a hunter-gatherer, we gather rice in the Philippines.’ So it just makes a connection and whether or not, its not Inupiat, but it’s still hunting and survival. You see it in all cultures.”] 

AH: Inupiat communities aren’t the only ones trying to incorporate culture into their schools. The Alaska Native Knowledge Network is amassing culturally-based curriculum resources and making them available to the state’s teachers. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has developed an elementary school math series based on Yupik knowledge and culture.  And in Southeast Alaska, the Sealaska Heritage Institute recently released coursework for grades six to eight - focused on Alaska Native history and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. 

Reporting from Barrow, I’m Anne Hillman.


The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule. 

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program. 


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Being Young in Rural Alaska #3: Making Education Relevant in Saint Mary's, Alaska


Report no. 3: Making Education Relevant in the Village of Saint Mary's

Reporting from: Saint Mary's, AK, pop. 500

[Alaska News Nightly host intro] From a distance, it can be hard to tell why some rural school districts seem to work better than others…why some have better test scores, higher attendance and graduation rates.  In the next installment of our series “Being young in rural Alaska”  from the producers of Kids These Days, Jessica Cochran looks at one Yukon River village – and how the community works together to support the school.

JESSICA COCHRAN: The community of Saint Mary’s sits near where the Andreafsky River flows into the Yukon. It is an area of rolling hills; there are so many ribbons of water, it’s hard to tell if it’s one channel looping around, or many weaving in and out.

The village was founded when a Catholic mission was moved there in 1948; some students boarded at the school, but other families moved nearby so they could be with their kids while they went to school.   When the city incorporated in 1967, it became a First Class City, so that it could have its own single-site school district.


Sunrise over Saint Mary's, a village in Western Alaska

JC: So in some ways, the importance of a good education is part of the fabric of Saint Mary’s. It takes a community-wide effort to make it happen. 

[Natural sound from Yupik skills class...]

JC: In a Yupik skills class, instructor Nick Thompson is working with students on eel sticks – long pieces of wood, carved so the edges are smooth, with rows of sharpened nails running down each side. 

[Thompson: "They’re on the nail part right now; this is extracurricular.... JC: "So what are the eel sticks used for?" Thompson: "Catching eels..."]

JC: He slowly swishes the stick as if in water.

[Thompson: "...through the water, back and forth, and then you pull ‘em out."]

VIDEO: Marcia Beans, a Yupik skills instructor, demonstrates how to make a toy during class

JC: One student is mending a fishing net, and others are making harpoons. The students will use these tools they have made on a series of trips, organized by the school each fall. They call them “relevant education” trips; relevant because people in Saint Mary’s live subsistence – they hunt, fish, and gather  much of their food, so the skills they practice on these trips, they use with their families too. Every student, from kindergarten through 12th grade has the chance to go on at least one trip each year. Sixth grader Megan Westdahl:

[Westdahl: "Yeah we stayed overnight and we went blueberry and blackberry picking, and we picked ayaq tea, which is tundra tea, and we learned how to pick them from my classmate Simone’s mom."]

Megan Westdahl

JC: These aren’t just “field trips”; students have data to collect and assignments to do in the field; a math problem involved using distances and geometry to calculate how high a tree is; science students collect different kinds of leaves and describe the terrain where they found them; there are daily writing assignments. When students return, they complete projects with the data – displaying them on posters that line the school walls. Theresa Paukan teaches 5th grade: 

[Paukan: "Each student weighed their berries in ounces and in pounds and we created class graphs in Excel, and found the minimum, maximum, etc using formulas in Excel. And then we learned about how recipes are written, and we wrote one for agutak, which is Eskimo ice cream and then we followed the recipe to make agutak as a class."]

The playground at school...

JC: Younger students go on day trips; high school students might go on a four day trip to the coast, or the big fall moose hunting trip. Junior Wassilie Tinker didn’t go his 9th grade year; most anyone in the school can tell you the three requirements to participate  – good grades, good attendance, good behavior. For Wassilie, it was motivation to do better. He did his first moose hunting trip as a sophomore  - it was the first time he’d been so far upriver.

[Tinker: "Piemute Slough, beautiful country. Lot of trees, lots of thorns. Its hard work when you get a moose in the meadow and there’s thorns all over."]

JC: Back at school, the students butchered the moose; some is kept at school, and much is given away:

[Tinker: "One of the staff members drives around and the students give the meat to people. Feels good, not like you’re being stingy. It's better to give than receive."]

JC: It’s a back and forth. The community supports the school too. Yupik teacher Lillian Johnson explains that in the fall, residents hosts a potlatch for local students.

[Johnson: "We give a potlatch to show that we support them, to encourage them; it had started  26 or 27 years ago when a lot of our local families couldn’t afford to get supplies for their children, so the mini-potlatch became, where everybody supported everybody else."]

4th grade teacher, Phil Workman, sporting a Saint Mary's hoodie - everyone in town has one!

JC: Members of the community are also essential in making the relevant education trips happen – they are the experienced boat captains who can navigate the rivers, the ones who know where to go to find berries. 

[School superintendent Dave Herbert: "The relevant instruction program has really built a sense of pride in the school, which has been there for many many years but it just kind of rekindled the pride in the community, and the students and the parent, in what a great school Saint Mary’s can be."]

JC: That’s superintendent Dave Herbert. The program began nine years ago after he started as superintendent.  Previously, achievement had taken a dip, morale was low, lots of students were leaving to go to Mount Edgecumbe. Some school board members had seen other schools go on similar trips, and recalled their own trips to villages when they were students at the Catholic mission school. And the trips have helped: suspensions are down, attendance rates are up. They give new teachers the opportunity to bond with their students and engage with the community early on. But Herbert says the main focus is still on academic standards:

[Herbert: "You  know we’re teaching the state of Alaska standards in all of our classrooms; that’s not negotiable. Our school board has never tried to come up with excuses for not meeting AYP (adequate yearly progress). They’ve always said we’re going to be proactive, we’re not going to come up with excuses, our kids have the ability and will perform."]

JC: It’s not perfect:

[Afcan: "I know the school has a really good reputation for being pushed into education, but there’s also a downside to everything, and I just like people to know that."

JC: Student body president John Afcan says there is still peer pressure against being too studious, still a lot of “troubles” with alcohol and drugs. Test scores have taken a dip after a high in 2009. There are still behavior issues, and suspensions.



JC: But Afcan thinks its improving, that the relevant instruction trips help. And by most accounts, the school is doing pretty well. Two years ago a student got a full scholarship to Stanford University. Most of last year’s graduates are now in college or a vocational program. And future graduates already have some big plans, like junior Aga Thompson:

[Thompson: "I’m thinking about going to Fairbanks for one year, then go to Dartmouth and become a politician."]

JC: And that’s what the school board wants – for students to graduate with ideas for the future, options, and choices.

Reporting from Saint Mary’s, I’m Jessica Cochran.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.


This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program. 


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