A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools:1899 to 1958 From the Gold Rush To Statehood
A Thesis by John Poling
the Territorial Department of Education
A territorial law of 1917 reorganized the entire school system, ending the old non-system of almost complete local autonomy and bringing in the sweeping changes of a new era that extended in evolutionary process through the next half century preceding statehood.
After the passage of the Nelson Act in 1905, which established the system of schools for white children, Congress approved a bill for the election of a non-voting delegate to Congress from Alaska, in 1906, and in 1912, passed an Organic Act, creating a territorial government.1
By the terms of the Organic Act, the territorial legislature was prohibited from passing any laws affecting schools insofar as their establishment and maintenance was concerned, and from appropriating territorial money for the support of schools. This restriction was removed by an Act approved on March 3, 1917, entitled "An Act to authorize the Legislature of Alaska to establish and maintain schools, and for other purposes.2
The territorial legislature was convened the same month and enacted a Uniform School Act, made necessary by a "Bone Dry Law" ending the legal sale of liquor and terminating the saloon licenses which had been the main support of territorial schools.3
A territorial Board of Education was provided, composed of the Governor and four senior senators, one from each judicial division, who selected a Commissioner of Education, Lester D. Henderson, to head the school system of the Territory. The Commissioner was vested with extensive powers in the general supervision of all territorial educational institutions, having authority to prepare general rules and regulations regarding the conduct of the schools, to formulate courses of study for all the schools, examine and certify teachers, authorize all school expenditures, audit the accounts of all school boards, and to be generally responsible for the standardization and coordination of the educational activities of the Territory.4
Rural schools were to be completely supported by the Territory, but incorporated city schools would receive 75% refunds of their expenses up to $15,000, exclusive of capital outlay on buildings, which still remained the responsibility of the local boards.5 An Act for the establishment of citizenship night schools at the expense of the Territory was also passed.6 In the 1919 session the legislature provided for the creation of a textbook commission and the adoption of a uniform set of textbooks for the development of a territorial course of study by the new Department of Education.7 A five dollar school tax on all male citizens of voting age was also enacted.8
In his first report, Commissioner Henderson made a general statement on school conditions in 1917. Previous to the appointment of a Commissioner, he said, each school district was in a high degree sufficient unto itself; schools situated inside incorporated towns derived their support entirely from local revenues and were not subject to central authority, and there was no uniformity of textbooks or curriculum. The Alaska Fund for a number of years was inadequate for the number of schools dependent of it, creating vocational education curtailment and limiting instruction to the formal type.
Comparatively good salaries, the Commissioner continued, and the lure of the North made it possible for school boards to employ good teachers, but the turnover was high, with resulting lack of stability or progress in curriculum; administration turnover was also inefficient through frequent changes of school policy. A few schools had prepared courses of study and offered manual training, music, commercial education and domestic science, but physical education suffered through lack of gymnasiums and equipment. Each school was a unit in itself, and also the whole, as it did not feel any relationship to any other school. Commissioner Henderson concluded, however, that the condition of the Alaska schools to 1917, was generally creditable, reflecting the character of the residents of the Territory and their belief in public education in spite of difficult conditions.9
Alaska was the first of the governments of states and territories to accept legislative responsibility for the major costs of its school system. Governor John F. A. Strong suggested the outline of the legislation needed for an efficient educational organization in the Territory. Perhaps his years of close association with the public school problem at Nome fitted the Governor with keen judgment in the field. In Dr. Henderson the Governor appointed a great administrator who set the Department of Education on a firm foundation in his twelve years as commissioner. He first visited Nome in the summer of 1918, a year after taking office, as it was his policy to make tours of inspection by areas in order to acquaint himself personally with local school matters that would require his advice and decision.10 Henderson’s first report reflected that he had gathered correct information on his visitations and had acquired thereby the intuitive understanding useful to coordinating the operations of his vast domain. It needed all the assistance he could give it.
By 1923, the courses of study for elementary and high school had been completed and revised, and printed for distribution to the schools. During the time of preparation, as sections of the manuals were finished, they were duplicated and sent to the schools for tentative trial. The published high school manual and course of study was 116 pages in length, and that for use in the elementary school contained 148 pages. The latter manual also contained an outline of Alaska civics, a brief historical sketch of Alaska, and information concerning the territorial principal industries.11 Dr. Henderson's manuals remained in use for the better part of twenty years, when in 1938, revision of the elementary course of study was begun by Dr. James C. Ryan of the University of Alaska.12
Dr. Henderson called a Teachers’ Institute at Ketchikan August 29 to September 11, 1922, where for the first time in Alaskan history most of the teachers of the Territory met to share their professional concerns. The Alaska Education Association was organized at that time "to elevate the character and advance the interests of the profession of teaching and to promote the cause of education in the Territory of Alaska."13 Nome alone was not represented, presumably because the ships destined for the Seward Peninsula crossed the Gulf of Alaska directly from Seattle, and did not touch at Southeastern ports. Subsequently, the teachers of Nome participated fully in all the important actions of the association.
Nome school children had never been tested for measurement of achievement in comparison with standard norms. During the school year 1923-1924, the Stanford Achievement Tests, primary and advanced, were given to all elementary schools in the Territory. The tests covered a range of subject matter divided into nine parts: reading – paragraph, sentence, and word meaning; arithmetic – computation and reasoning; nature study and science; history and literature; language usage; and spelling from dictation.14
The Commissioner commented that "an age-grade study… shows that the majority of pupils, especially in incorporated town schools are normal or in the grade which their chronological age would indicate proper. This lends support to the statement that the achievement of Alaska school children is superior as shown by the tables of results of the Stanford tests."15
In the two tests given, showing growth in achievement after one semester, Nome grade school ranked sixth among 14 schools tested in the "A" test and eleventh in the terminal "B" test, showing a gain of 10.3 percent in the median scores. The highest gain in the Territory was 24.6 percent, and the lowest results were a loss in one school of 7.2 percent. Dr. Henderson further explained, "A study of growth in educational age for the various grades shows progress in incorporated towns, ranging from a growth of four months in grade four to twelve months in grade six…In interpreting these results, one should bear in mind the fact that growth for a period of four and a half months, or for one semester of school work only was measured."16
The tests demonstrated conclusively that the Nome schools were competitive and achieving standards equal to or above the national average. When the results are considered, it must also be kept in mind that Nome, as well as other incorporated cities, had schools enrolling only white or non-native children and children of mixed blood "leading a civilized life," having a heritage of American culture, and speaking English as their "mother tongue." There were few exceptions. But the small cloud of change was on the horizon before 1920. Dr. Henderson commented, "During the school year 1917-1918, twenty percent of the children enrolled in the schools were of Native blood. The larger part of these are in the schools in the Seward Peninsula, Cook’s Inlet and Aleutian Islands regions."17 The problems of acculturation were to wreak havoc in the educational standards of the Nome schools in years to come.
Except for the school years between 1919 and 1921, when the Nome school budget increased and held at an average of $3000 above the 1918 level, the time from the creation of the territorial school system up to 1932 was one of general stasis. With small variations, the 1918 budget of $13,204.97, and the 1932 budget of $13,505.00 were little different. The increases that appeared sharply in the cited years, and another increase in 1925, could be credited to a change in the fall of 1919 to free textbooks for the children, purchased by the board under the new territorial subsidy. Library volumes were augmented from the old number of approximately 200, in the independent school, to 600 in 1920, to 1500 in 1921, 2024 in 1923, and 2954 in 1925. By 1933, only 750 of the volumes were usable, which might indicate the appreciation of constant usage by young readers.18 Neglected library books don’t depreciate.
Under a territorial law of 1917, establishing citizenship night schools, such classes were held between 1917 and 1920, at full territorial expense. Twenty-week sessions, with one instructor, were given in three two-hour classes per week in reading, writing, arithmetic, English, American history, and mineralogy. In the third year, total attendance was reported as 21 students, 15 men and 6 women.19
From 1918 to 1930, seven administrators headed the schools: Emma Lee Orr, 1918-1920; Mrs. Frederick Bockman (Helen Southard Moore), 1920-1921; Mr. T. Collins, 1921-1922; Lars E. Rynning, 1922-1925; D. W. Davis, 1925-1926; Leo W. Breuer, who later served two years as Commissioner of Education, 1926-1928; and Luther Dunbar, 1928-1930. Administrators were required to sign an affidavit on the territorial Department of Education Annual Report "A" signifying personal knowledge and responsibility for the content of the report. In high dudgeon, Mr. Collins, whose one year contract was not renewed, refused to sign the Report in 1922, but appended his opinion across the face of it:
Board having full control of funds (record hereon furnished by secretary) certification by Principal out of question. Before certification – even before financial report is made out by Principal, he or she should have access to all bills and records of expenditures. The present system is ridiculous.
In small school systems, tight board control – often obstructive – was the usual rule in Alaska, so much so that Commissioner of Education William K. Keller, in 1932, abolished all rural advisory school boards, which were not reestablished until after statehood, when politicians in the State legislature reinstituted them.20 In an incorporated community, operating its own schools, a school board is a patent necessity, but in a small community it is inclined to extend its powers into the area of administration, which creates a problem for the administrative officer whose work it is to plan and coordinate the educational program and to select teachers and workers for final approval under board policy. The interesting game of selecting teachers for the administrator from among the many applications has been one factor of disagreement in board-administrator relationships, to cite an example.21 Where an unusual turnover rate of administrators prevails, as was mainly the situation in Nome until 1944, in the pre-statehood era, an unsatisfactory board-administrator relationship is indicated.
From 1930 to 1944, five superintendents served, with an average tenure of three years showing improvement in school system leadership by the board. Superintendents in this period were: E. J. Beck, 1930-1934; William H. Bloom, 1934-1936; Calvin E. Pool, 1936-1939; A. A. Ryan, 1939-1943; Frank A Smola, 1943-1944. With the employment of William L. Angell as superintendent in 1944, the cooperative relations of the board with its executive officer reached the peak of its history. Mr. Angell served from 1944 to 1959 (with the year 1951-1952 on leave filled by Oliver G. Boe), a tenure of fourteen years. In the best of systems this would be an enviable record of operational harmony.22 It is significant that in these years of temperamental stability, the melding of the native school population into the city schools was accomplished, a subject that will be dealt with further in due course.
In the meanwhile, regardless of adult tensions, the era in which the school was numerically small was a pleasurable one for the children of Nome. With a total enrollment as low as 56 in 1922, and not holding at above 100 until the mid-thirties, the pupils enjoyed close personal ties with their classmates and the five teachers. The school was fortunate in having inherited a good gymnasium from more affluent times. Indeed, it was one of only seven schools in the Territory having gym facilities for just 40.7 percent of all enrolled pupils.23At times the high school boys and girls could barely raise a team, but the junior high could always come to the rescue with another player, and groups of the townspeople could supply competition. Academic life, too, was zestful from the first grade to the top high school class. Contests and organized cultural interests were a combination of learning and entertainment, just as they had been in the pioneer days. It was, in fact, still a frontier school, but comparatively well endowed with the gifts of the past and the human resources of a promising future. All were captivated by the thrilling air age emerging from beyond the dog trails and brought to Nome by heroic men in flimsy planes daring all dangers and seasons.
A series of five annuals, The Aurora Borealis, were issued beginning in the spring of 1926, and continuing until 1930. Other mimeographed publications were issued in 1924, and at other times.24 The historical value of the new Aurora Borealis compared favorably with the best of The Aurora published by the former generation. The curriculum of the high school included Latin, physics, algebra, and four years of English, and general science, with upper classes in algebra and geometry. Commercial arithmetic, modern history, and typing were also taught, and manual training, cooking and sewing, at times. Variations occurred from year to year, such as the decrease of English by one year and the substitution of Spanish in place of Latin, in 1929. New superintendents rearranged the curriculum but always in conformance with Department of Education minimum requirements, or varied the mode of instruction between departmentalization and class standing. Departmentalization was discontinued by Superintendent Dunbar in 1929, when the high school enrollment totaled fifteen students.25
In the ‘20’s fifteen students were graduated from high school. Una Sitton, in 1923, was the first graduate since 1916, although 58 children had finished the eighth grade since the latter year.26Ten of the high school graduates entered college: Alvin Bahlke, Jack Hamlyn, Emily Polet, and Kristie Sather of the class of ’24; Emerson Fromm, ’25; Alvin Polet, Robert Lyle, and Eunice Sears, ’27; and Russell Maynard and Frances Ross, ’28. Ada Arthurs, ’25, who later married Noel Wien, the aviator, went to business college.
Throughout their history, the Nome schools alumni maintained a high average in percentage of college matriculation.
From 1922, when the United States Army Air Corps fliers made the first flight to Nome, the new age of aviation gripped the imagination of its youth. Joseph E. Walsh, a junior, wrote a report on a thrilling ride in an airplane entitled, "A Trip to the Clouds," in 1929. "You can imagine my feelings," wrote Joe. "A propellor was whirling in front of me, signifying that in but a few seconds I should be traveling in space."27 The thrill was permanent – Joe made a career with Pan American World Airways.
Grace Swanberg, a freshman, noted that "the Wien Alaska Airway Company has helped much in the development of Nome in the last two years. The airplane offers a quick and safe means of transportation. Nowl Wien’s flight to North Cape, Siberia, will always be an outstanding point in the history on Nome. It marks the first time a plane has ever crossed Bering Straits over into Russia."28 But in that same area, in November, Colonel Ben Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Borland, crashed at East Cape, Siberia. Joe Walsh, now a senior, and Mildred Maynard, a junior, composed a detailed article on the death of the great pioneer aviator and his companion. Titled "The Air Tragedy of the Arctic," the report revealed the deep feeling of personal involvement that moved the younger generation to a sense of the drama of their times.29
In the business community, the Northwestern Alaska Chamber of Commerce published an advertisement variously promoting Nome as:
The Distributing Center for Seward Peninsula
At that time the Lomen Reindeer Company was also in business. The city council still held the school board budget at a minimum, even with 85% basic territorial support, and the city share of the 1929 budget of $12,845.98 was $1969.55, or $23.17 from local resources for each of the 85 pupils. In Alaska parlance, about the price of a fifth of whiskey for every taxpayer. But in this time of national prohibition there was no Miner Bruce, no Colonel Sawyer, Captain Storey, or Scotty Allan on the scene to challenge the inequitable domination of the city fathers over school affairs. There was peace at very little cost – if at a price. Perhaps they had forgotten the difference and nobody knew, except the revolving professional staff.
The 1930’s were to see great changes in Alaska and the world. The great depression began with the crash of the stock market in November of 1929, and a Democratic Party administration came into power with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. In an effort to stem the rising tide of unemployment and business collapse, President Roosevelt initiated far reaching economic aids for the assistance of communities in developing public works projects. Federal monies were to come to the aid of the Nome Public Schools in the most vital way.30
Local support for the schools had never been sufficient for more than "keeping school" up to the minimum standards required by the Department of Education in the decade of the 1920’s. The old school building, after three decades of service in a hard climate, was falling into a state of decay and unserviceability. Undoubtedly, the high incidence of teacher loss was related to the unattractive teaching environment, regardless of the attractiveness of the children who made up the school. The effect of the minimal educational environment was soon measured by the Commissioner of Education. Unsurprisingly, his survey showed a success or failure correlation, over the Territory, almost directly in proportion to local community economic support of school budgets.31
In a survey of success of college students from Alaska high schools, based on appoint system of 5.0 as average, 5.5 as high, and 4.5 or less as low, graduates from only four Alaskan high schools out of 13, rated above 4.5, the standard set by the University of Washington as low. Nome graduates placed eleventh from the top, rating 3.1, while Petersburg rated 5.8; Juneau, 5.4; Douglas, 4.7; and Skagway, 4.6. The survey extended over a five year period between 1925 and 1930. The suggested reasons for the failure of Alaskan high schools in preparing graduates adequately for college were high turnover of teachers and administration, and poor buildings and equipment.32 A further report four years later showed that four cities provided more in percentage of city income for school support than did the City of Nome, while ten provided less – an amazing correlation between the two sets of figures.
At this time Nome provided 39% of its tax income for school purposes, a median figure, while the top four cities provided up to 80.8% of income and the lower ten contributed as low as 11.2%33 The Nome per capita cost of child education in 1935-1936 was $137.07, compared with a territorial average cost of $121.95.34 Under territorial law, these costs were 85% reimbursable to the Nome school board. Significantly, the largest item of the territorial budget, from the establishment of the Department of Education in 1917, to the present, has been the appropriation for education, which frequently, before statehood, exceeded 50% of the biennial expenses of government.35 The legislature accepted as a responsibility the support for local education that city councils seemed to share grudgingly as a duty in a majority of Alaska’s incorporated cities. Perhaps the early dependence of councils on federal license fees for support was the source of the tendency to look to higher government levels for school funds. It can be observed impartially that local school systems have never been supported in a basic measure by local effort, a fact tacitly recognized in the State constitution which calls education "a function of the State," and leaves the possibility open for the eventual total assumption of local school financing and control by the State Department of Education.
However, the local school officials and teachers worked with what they had. Commissioner of Education William K. Keller reported in 1932, "Efforts to improve the standings of the high schools of the Territory have been made… Nome has also improved and broadened the work being offered, and will probably be recommended for accreditation at an early date."36 The high school was accredited three years later by the Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools at the annual meeting in Spokane, Washington, in April, 1935, attended by Commissioner Anthony E. Karnes, who represented Alaska.37*
As a result of a disastrous fire which destroyed the central business district and its surrounding residential areas in the fall of 1934, the City of Nome was not able to meet its share of the school board budget. The 1935 Legislature passed a special appropriation of $10,000 to assist the city in the operation and maintenance of the school for the 1934-1936 biennium, and generously augmented the sum with $25,000 for use in helping to construct and equip a new school building.38
Available federal monies had already made the desired acquisition of a replacement for the old school building feasible in 1933. In that year application was made through the Governor’s office to the newly created Federal Public Works Administration for a grant of funds, to be put with $30,000 appropriated by the Legislature, for new school buildings and additions in Alaska. An overall grant requested by the Territory of $175,000 was approved in January, 1934, by the federal government.39 This amount was to cover construction of 21 rural school buildings and an eight room building at Nome, for which $50,000 was set aside.40 Appropriations were held up on the Nome project until the summer of 1935, pending applications for additional funds for building a combination gymnasium and auditorium in the new school.41
A contract for the construction was awarded to the Peterman Construction Company,42 and work was started in November of 1935, and completed in the fall of 1936.43 With the establishment of the new colony at Palmer, it was sound unnecessary to construct the rural school building at Matanuska, and the amount left over from the earmarked fund was assigned to supplement the construction at Nome.44 Other funds of $8000 were authorized by PWA for new equipment.45 The total cost of the project amounted to $88,182.68. Of this amount, the Federal government paid $59,187.21; the Territory, $22,045.67; and the City of Nome, $6,949.80.46 In 1939, the Legislature appropriated another $10,000 for building and addition to the school of two rooms for manual training and home economics.47
In contrast to the generosity of the territorial and federal governments, one last display of the parsimony of the city government will be reviewed. At a city council meeting reported on May 27, 1933, the school board, composed of Mrs. Effie Baldwin, Mrs. Tolbert Scott, and Lars Rynning, a former superintendent of schools, presented a budget of $18,889.55 for the ensuing school year. The council school committee met with the board to discuss the budget and reduced it by the amount of $1978.73 to a total of $16,910.82.48 On a system of 85% reimbursement by the Territory, the schools lost $1683 in much needed funds, at a saving to the city of $296 of 15% support. The contribution of the Territory to the new budget amounted to $14,374, in round figures, and that of the city to $2537. As the population of the town had grown from 852 in 1920, to 1213 in 1930, so small a local contribution reflected a strange attitude toward the values of education, indeed. Meanwhile, when disaster by fire struck in September, and the local share of the budget was covered by the Legislature from a grant for the biennium the council approved the free 1934-1935 budget of $17,101.90, in open meeting, without demur.49
The council was willing to trust the judgment of the school board when someone else paid the bills.
During the years of school building and educational improvement of 1934 to the end of the decade, Lars Rynning served on the board the first year, and throughout the more active period to 1940, Mrs. Baldwin, Mrs. Carrie M. McLain, and Elmer Rydeen served continuously. Michael J. Walsh, a member of the Territorial Board of Education, represented the school interests effectively in enlisting the active participation of Governor John Troy in gaining federal aid and urging legislative priorities in making allotments to Nome.50