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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Historical Status of Elementary Schools

Historical Status of Elementary Schools in Rural Alaskan Communities


Carol Barnhardt

The following is an excerpt from Historical Status of Elementary Schools in Rural Alaskan Communities 1867-1980 by Carol Barnhardt. It was originally published by the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies in 1985. For information on ordering the book, send an email message to the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. or call (907) 474-1902.




SECTION I: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE (included in its entirety)


Summary of Major Educational Systems in Alaska

Chronological Summary of Major Educational Legislation in Alaska


Explanation of Table Headings

Tables: Community/Date/Operating Agency/Source



Geographical Location of Communities



Partial Listing of Established Communities Without School Histories

Listing of Unverified Geographical Communities

MAP (In Back Pocket)




This report presents information on the historical status and geographical location of elementary schools in rural Alaskan communities from 1867 to 1980.

Alaska's educational history is complex because of the dual federal-territorial system of education established in 1905. After Alaska became a state, both federal and state agencies compiled statistical data about their own school systems, but there has been no systematic attempt to integrate these data. The usefulness of one composite document seems evident, and this report is the first attempt to gather information from scattered sources and present it in an organized, useful manner.

In 1979, a preliminary review copy of this report was distributed to rural schools, school districts, Native corporations, church organizations, and historical societies The responses received from these groups indicate that the information in this document will be informative and useful to a wide variety of private and public individuals and groups. The draft copy has been used to examine the effects of different operating agencies on schools and communities; investigate population shifts; examine social and political decisions relevant to education; serve as a guideline for updating the status of elementary schools; and promote further research on the establishment of urban schools and secondary schools.

Accompanying the review document was a request that the reader verify, correct or add to the information presented. Responses were received from 97 different schools or organizations and information was gathered on 208 different communities. The information obtained from these questionnaires contributed significantly to the accurateness and completeness of the final report.

The primary purpose of this report is to present information about the elementary schools in rural Alaska. Although it would be useful to have information about all of the schools in Alaska in one document, it was not feasible to do so. The reader should be aware that there has been no attempt to include complete information for schools in the following categories:

a. Secondary Schools

Since the research for this report was completed, there has been a significant change in the educational systems in rural Alaska with the establishment of small high schools in a large number of villages, as a result of the Tobeluk Consent Decree in 1976. There are no data included in this report on the development of these secondary schools.

b. Urban Schools

The entries for the urban areas include opening and closing dates only for the first school in a city. Information on the opening and closing dates of other schools in urban areas is available in borough school district offices.

c. Private Schools

Since private schools in Alaska were not required to submit annual reports to the Commissioner of Education until 1935, information on these schools is sometimes incomplete. Detailed information about private schools in urban areas is not included.

d. Russian Schools

Russian schools continued to play an important role in the educational system of Alaska long after 1867. However, specific information on opening and closing dates of the schools is difficult to access, and some of the information has not been translated into English.


Although the publication date for this report is 1985, the data included are valid only through 1980. In some instances there may be a one-year discrepancy in the opening and closing dates of schools since some agencies' records were based on the calendar year, some on the school year, and some on the fiscal year.



The following is a brief summary of the major landmarks in the establishment of the educational systems in Alaska, which should be helpful in interpreting the statistical information.

For nearly the first twenty years following the purchase of Alaska from Russia (1867 to 1884) the U.S. Government made no provision for education in its newly acquired district. Education was provided by mission societies of American churches, Russian Orthodox Schools, and by the Alaska Commercial Company on the Pribilof Islands. Sitka maintained its own public school from 1869 to 1873.

In 1884, Congress passed the First Organic Act which delegated the responsibility of providing education for children of all races in the District of Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior. (It was not until passage of the Second Organic Act in 1912 that Alaska was given territorial status, and thus became a "Territory" and not a "District".) In 1885, the task of providing education was assigned to the Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior. From 1885 to 1894 the U.S. Bureau of Education maintained public schools and "contract schools." Contracts to operate schools were made with Catholic, Congregational, Episcopal, Methodist, Moravian, Presbyterian, and Swedish-Evangelical churches.

Government support of these contract schools was withdrawn in 1894, following which the Bureau of Education maintained the only public schools in the Territory. However, gold rushes during the nineties resulted in a large increase in the non-Native population and made it impossible for the Bureau of Education, due to limited funds, to provide enough schools. Subsequently, in 1900, the U.S. Congress granted legal authority to communities in Alaska to incorporate, establish schools, and maintain them through taxation. Many Alaskan towns did incorporate and establish schools shortly after the bill passed. However, the number of non-Native communities which were too small to incorporate was increasing rapidly. They, too, desired some degree of local autonomy in the management of their schools. Consequently, in 1905, Congress passed the Nelson Act which provided for the establishment of schools outside incorporated towns. The governor of the District of Alaska was made the ex-officio superintendent of public instruction, and new schools were established in which only "White children and children of mixed blood leading a civilized life" were entitled to attend. Responsibility for schools for Native Alaskans was delegated specifically to the Bureau of Education under the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Thus, the dual system of education in Alaska was inaugurated. It consisted of: 1) the Territorial system, which then included local school districts in incorporated towns as well as Territorial- operated schools outside of incorporated towns, all supervised by the governor; and 2) the federal system of schools for Alaskan Natives, supported through federal appropriations and supervised by the U.S. Bureau of Education.

Twelve years later, in 1917, Congress removed many of the educational restrictions that had previously been placed on the Territorial legislature. The legislature quickly passed the Uniform School Act which created a Territorial Board of Education and established the position of Commissioner of Education.

In 1926, the Territory began to operate "Special Schools." These schools were designed to fill an existing need in communities where there were fewer children than required by law for the establishment of a rural school. They were operated on a cooperative basis with the community and continued to exist until 1943.

From 1905 until 1931, the Bureau of Education extended its services to more remote sections of the Territory and assumed full responsibility for the social welfare and education of Alaskan Natives. The Bureau's services included, along with education, the Reindeer Service, medical services, cooperative stores, the Alaska Trust Fund, operation of a ship (North Star) for supplying isolated villages, and the maintenance of an orphanage and three industrial schools.

In 1931, following a national survey of Indian social and economic conditions (Merriam Report, 1928), the U.S. Congress transferred the responsibility for education of the Natives of Alaska from the Bureau of Education to the Office of Indian Affairs (later referred to as the Alaska Indian Service, the Alaska Native Service and finally as the Bureau of Indian Affairs), but still within the Department of the Interior. This transfer allowed all Native American education programs to be channeled through a single agency and was intended to bring Alaskan Native education objectives closer to those of Indian education in the United States.

Three years later, in 1934, John Collier became the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs. As a result of Collier's push for self-determination and the Merriam Report, the Johnson-O'Malley Act of 1934 was passed which provided financial assistance to states by providing public school programs for Natives, and authorized contractual arrangements for the delivery of health, education and social services. Between 1942 and 1948 the Territorial Department of Education negotiated contracts with the BIA and approximately twenty BIA schools were integrated into the Territorial system. In 1951 Congress extended the provisions of the Johnson-O'Malley Act to Alaska by clarifying its intent. Therefore, in 1951, the first "Johnson- O'Malley" (JOM) contracts were established and five BIA schools were transferred to the Territory. Federal funds continued to support these "JOM Schools" but they were now operated by the Territorial Department of Education. Plans for unification of the dual system of education and the orderly transfer of Federal schools to the Territory were initiated. In 1951, Congress also passed P.L. 815-874 which provided federal funding for the Territorial operation of schools on military bases (referred to as Alaska On-Base Schools).

Between 1951 and 1954, twenty-two schools were transferred from the BIA to the Territory, but problems arose between the two groups and the transfer of JOM schools ceased in 1954. In 1959, when Alaska became a state, the two components of the dual system of rural education were still very far apart and a satisfactory plan for merging them into a single system had not emerged. In addition to the BIA schools and the rural state-operated schools, there also existed private schools, and three types of local schools: City School Districts (every incorporated city constitutes a school district, 1900); Incorporated School Districts (any area in Alaska outside the limits of an incorporated city and having a population of 100 or more may incorporate as a school district, 1937); and Independent School Districts (a school district may organize to include within its boundaries a city and contiguous areas adjacent to the city, provided that the district when organized does not embrace more than 500 square miles, 1947).

Five years later, in 1963, the legislature passed the Borough Act which created nine boroughs and all local school districts located within the new boroughs were merged. (Thirty-two rural schools were eventually included in this transfer.) Thus statehood had a significant influence on the structure of local school districts, but little on the development of programs for rural education.

In 1965 increased attention was given to rural education and the State Department of Education was reorganized. A Division of State-Operated Schools (SOS) was established with responsibility for Rural and On-Base Schools, and a Governor's committee was created to once again explore the merger of BIA and State-Operated Rural Schools. Between 1967 and 1970, twenty-eight BIA schools were transferred to the State.

In 1971, the Alaska State legislature created the Alaska State-Operated School System as an independent agency and transferred operational responsibilities for Rural and On-Base schools from the Department of Education to this new entity. However, pressure for more local control brought legislative action again in 1975 that abolished the State-Operated School System and created the Alaska Unorganized Borough School District and set up a process for establishing twenty-one Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs). On July 1, 1976, the Unorganized Borough School District ceased to exist and the twenty-one REAAs became school districts. The operation of On-Base Schools was contracted to nearby borough districts, or continued as part of the new REAAs.

The formation of these new districts had an impact on BIA school transfer negotiations as well. No transfer had occurred since 1970, but in 1975-1976, six BIA schools were transferred to the new REAA districts and the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Education for 1975-1976 stated that "currently under way are plans to integrate the State's remaining BIA schools with those under State jurisdiction." Between July 1, 1976 and June 30, 1979 no BIA schools were transferred to REAA districts; two were transferred on July 1, 1979. In the fall of 1979 there were 146 schools in REAA districts and 43 BIA schools. The transfer of BIA schools to REAA districts is expected to continue, federal plans call for them to be completely phased out by 1985.

It is evident that schools in rural Alaska have gone through a complex and often confusing series of changes in administrative structures and policies. Some schools have operated under as many as nine different administrative structures, and there are still communities in which both federal and state schools operate side by side, one offering the elementary and the other a secondary program.

The school systems in rural communities today are still in a formative stage of development and will continue to go through changes paralleling those in the larger social, political and economic contexts in which they operate. The one consistent theme throughout the history of schools in Alaska has been a gradual, but continuous move toward more localized control of the systems through which they are operated. Following the past pattern of adjustment from federal to state to regional control, it is likely that changes will continue to occur toward increasingly localized decision-making.



U.S. Purchase of Alaska from Russia.


Organic Act-U.S. Congress delegates responsibility of providing education for children of all races in the Territory to the Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior.


U.S. Congress grants legal authority to communities in Alaska to incorporate, establish schools and maintain them through taxation.


Nelson Act-U.S. Congress provides for the establishment of schools outside incorporated towns, and the governor of the Territory is made the ex-officio superintendent of public instruction.


Uniform School Act-U.S. Congress creates a Territorial Board of Education and establishes the position of Commissioner of Education .


U.S. Congress transfers responsibility for education of Alaska Natives from the Bureau of Education to the Office of Indian Affairs (both within the Department of the Interior).


Johnson-O'Malley Act extension-U.S. Congress extends provisions of Johnson-O'Malley Act (JOM) to Alaska by clarifying its intent.


Territorial Law Chapter 77-Allows an incorporated city and its adjacent settlements to incorporate into an Independent School District not exceeding 250 square miles. Anchorage incorporated into the first Independent School District in 1947.


P.L. 815-874-U.S. Congress provides federal funding for Territorial operation of schools on military bases.


U.S. Congress passes Alaska Statehood Act.


Borough Act-Alaska State Legislature creates nine boroughs and all local school districts within the new boroughs are merged.


Division of State-Operated Schools (SOS)-Alaska State Department of Education reorganizes and establishes a new Division (SOS) which is given responsibility for Rural and On-Base schools.


Alaska State-Operated School System-Alaska State Legislature establishes new system as an independent agency and transfers operational responsibilities for Rural and On-Base schools from the Department of Education to this new entity.


Alaska Unorganized Borough School District-Alaska State Legislature abolishes the Alaska State-Operated School system and establishes the Unorganized Borough School District.


Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs)-Alaska State Legislature abolishes the Unorganized Borough School District and establishes twenty-one REAAs. On-Base schools contracted to nearby borough districts or continue as part of the new REAAs.


Tobeluk Consent Decree-The Alaska State Board of Education adopts regulations assuring every child a right to attend high school in his or her own community if there is an elementary school there, unless the community asks that there be no school.



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Last modified August 17, 2006