Icy response to Alaska job offers

31st August 2001 at 01:00
United States

The tiny hunting and fishing settlement of Atqasuk, Alaska - population 226 - consists of little more than a store and post office. Residents have to haul their water from a central well, and there are no flush toilets. The temperature drops below freezing 300 days a year, there are no roads and the sun never rises above the horizon from November to January.

There is a school in this remote smudge on the map far above the Arctic Circle: it has 73 students, aged four to 18. But at a time when all of America is facing a shortage of teachers, it is struggling to find staff.

The North Slope Borough School District, which operates this school and others in a vast, barely populated area of 88,000 square miles, had to fill 55 of its 210 teaching posts this summer, after more than a quarter of its staff moved on to more comfortable surroundings. Superintendent Freda Arnhart considers herself lucky, though; that was actually a smaller proportion than previous years.

"There has just been a decline in the teacher pool, period," says the upbeat Mrs Arnhart, who moved to Alaska "for the adventure" from the southern state of Arkansas 17 years ago. "People realize that they can't stand the cold: many times we have a wind chill of 70 (Fahrenheit) below. It's dark from mid-November to the mid-January. That's tough on people."

There are unique challenges to teaching in a place like this. Witness this excerpt from the job description: "It is the responsibility of the teacher to deal with emergencies or situations such as those in which mechanical systems are inoperative and supplies are not readily available."

Nor are salaries high, especially considering that supplies have to be flown in, making them costly. Teachers earn at most $40,000 (pound;28,000), less than in many other US districts.

Districts such as Mrs Arnhart's are now trying to attract teachers by helping to subsidise the cost of housing.

"It's been getting harder to find a supply of teachers," says Harry Gamble, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education. "We're competing with other states that are offering more incentives."

Some teachers are still drawn to the challenge of Alaska. "A lot of people do want to come to the top of the world," says Mrs Arnhart. Inupiat Eskimo children, who make up most of the roll, also provide a unique culture. But many teachers leave after a few weeks. "Initially it may seem adventurous," says Kevin O'Connor of the state's teacher placement programme. "But when it gets down to minus 40, it's not so much fun."

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