Out There

first day of school

Posted in teaching by Pete on August 19, 2008

Our school appears to have a great staff this year!  They are all working hard and seem like they truly enjoy kids.  Noone just marking time until retirement.  Our principal will retire after this year, but he isn’t like that and is finishing strongly.   We are very lucky to have such a principal who really loves the kids, who fights for them, cries at graduation, etc.  When we travel to other schools for sports, sometimes we realize how great we have it.  (And no I’m not brown-nosing — nobody on the school staff reads this blog)

Anyway, yesterday was the first day of school, and there was a great energy to the day.  The young ones always try to come hours early, they’re so excited.  One little guy came home from a half-day of school and went right to bed (kids are still on summer schedule, staying up until 2 am or later and struggling to get up for breakfast at school at 8:15).  When he awoke, his mom said he got dressed for school and was ready to go, but it was only 4:00 in the afternoon or so!  After school was a staff meeting and cross country practice and then we had a 2-hour open gym in the evening.  Some kids just hang out at school from about 8 am to 9 pm!  Our staff consists of 1 student teacher, 1 first year teacher, 1 second year teacher, 1 third year teacher, 1 6th year teacher (Tammy), 1 veteran (maybe 20 years?) certified teacher, 2 veteran classified teachers (teaching in Yup’ik), and Carl, our longtime principal.

I think it’s going to be a good year at Akiuk Memorial School, for learning and having fun.

school health, junk food, and salmon

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on August 19, 2008

That lunch tray post made me think of a few other items.  One is our district health policy, which was adopted at figurative gunpoint after the feds said all school districts had to have one.  The health policy primarily puts restrictions on junk food that can be in the school during school hours, limiting candy, chips, pop, etc.  I wholly support this, although currently most schools just wait until an hour after school gets out and then they pull out the junk.  It IS a huge fundraiser.  But I tend to believe that if you have some decent offerings that make the healthy cut, and you simply don’t offer the junk, you’ll still sell a ton of stuff.  Like baked chips, gatorade, fruit snacks, beef jerky, pretzels, popcorn.  If you’re tenacious and creative you can come up with a bunch of stuff kids like that isn’t total garbage.

Oops, getting sidetracked.  I guess my main beef is the hypocrisy when it comes to what we serve at meals in the school.  Keep in mind that every one of our kids in our school qualifies for free lunch/breakfast.  Noone brings food from home.  We serve pizza, corn dogs, some pre-cooked burgers (weird), burritos, egg rolls, that kind of stuff.  We also generally give some kind of sweet item like canned fruit or brownies.  And a canned vegetable that is usually quite objectionable like canned peas.  I should point out that yesterday we had corn on the cob with the corn dogs and canned fruit in heavy syrup.  Some kids had never eaten corn on the cob before.  So that was great.  Our principal said that someone at the district office realized we were giving kids way too much sodium so they bought a whole bunch of frozen corn on the cob.  We have a fantastic cook, and my comments are not meant to diminish her contributions in any way whatsoever.
It’s just always struck me as pretty silly that we legislate what we can SELL as a fundraiser when we’re force -feeding them a ton of bad food.  We provide 2 of their 3 meals, Mon-Fri, and during sports season we do dinner pretty often too.  Local sites apparently have little say in what is served.  The district office in Bethel coordinates the meals district-wide and we just get boxes of stuff in the mail.  Which is why sometimes we have vast quantities of something we don’t even use.  Like 60 boxes of corn starch.  Or the 10 huge bottles of ranch and thousand island I saw in the fridge the other day.  I guess this is normal stuff when you have a far-away bureaucracy doing the purchasing for satellite facilities in the field.

So I’m making a lot of criticisms, do I have any answers?  I think the main problem is that the district feels that some local sites can’t be trusted to order appropriately (within budget, the right amount of food, the right quality of food, etc).  And they may be right.  These days I keep tripping over examples of people who seem to be pretty sloppy and careless in their work, and its disappointing.  Man, what a litany of complaints this post is!  I don’t want my blog to be a giant complaint session, but fixing problems is what my brain wants to do, and this is part of how I’ve been processing those things lately.  I’m not as good about “Hey I’m so thankful for _________” kind of posts.

Lastly, at one point to save $$ and offer something healthy, our principal bought some fresh-caught salmon from local villagers to serve in the cafeteria.  He ended up getting in trouble because we have to serve food that has been USDA inspected.  Lame.  We could buy all the fresh salmon the kids could ever eat for about $.50/pound or less, a huge savings over what we pay for the greasy & sweet stuff we serve now (especially when you consider the cost of shipping frozen food–something like $1.50/pound or more just from Anchorage to KUK, and in addition it generally arrives partly thawed).  So in order to conform to USDA regs, we are spending far more $$ to make our kids more obese & diabetic and at risk of colo-rectal cancer, etc etc.  Yuck.

Next post will be more positive!  : – )

Don and Ted

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on August 19, 2008

So an election is right around the corner, or the primary anyway. Everyone wants to know if Alaska’s longtime house rep Don Young, and our “Senator for life” Ted Stevens will survive the ethical cloud of publicity that surrounds them. I won’t go into those specifics here. If you don’t know about it, a 10 second google search will give you zillions of sources to read up on it all. What I find most fascinating is a pervasive Alaskan attitude (I’ve seen it elsewhere too) that “Yeah, they probably did some bad stuff, but that is what everyone does, and hey you gotta play the game to win. If we elect some squeaky-clean freshman they won’t get anything done for Alaska.” The ADN had a recent article that featured this quote:

Coose said many in the Alaska GOP are calling for change without considering the consequences. He too would like change — in the federal system. But he doesn’t want Alaska sitting on the congressional sidelines without advocates like Young and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history.

“Until everyone in the union says we’re going to take back America from Washington, D.C., we’re in the game,” Coose said. “I think Don and Ted are two very strong people who know how the system works.”

Call me a pie-in-the-sky hopeless gen-x wild-eyed optimist, but isn’t that a really cynical, selfish attitude? Dylan says you gotta SERVE somebody! Whatever happened to public servants? And “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?” Jumping into the 3rd person, Rickey Henderson style: Pete is just enough of a Pollyanna to say that we should vote for whoever has some character & humility and does the right thing for the nation (as in, the people), regardless of how much pork they bring home or how bombastic they are.

polystyrene (styrofoam) trays

Posted in teaching by Pete on August 18, 2008

So here is a random topic I’ve chewed on for a few years (no pun intended) and was just reminded of by a colleague. Our school district, like New York City public schools, uses styrofoam (well technically it’s called polystyrene) trays to serve breakfast and lunch to all students everyday. Keep in mind that our village dump is actually just a spot on the tundra half a mile from the village on the edge of a lake and everything is burned from time to time. So we’re paying for these trays, which appear to cost between $35 and $70 per case of 500.

Now keep in mind the shipping will greatly increase that cost. The district might be paying as little as $55 per case if they’re getting a good deal. Then there is the cost of driving over to the post office and picking them up (1.5 miles each way by boat or snowmachine, and school employees do this on the clock), and then 3 full trash bags that they fill (per meal), and then the cost of hauling those full trash bags by the handcart load out of the school, down the boardwalk to the school dock to the school boat and to the dump (.5 miles each way and again on the clock). This doesn’t take into account the environmental cost, nor the supreme irony of everyone in the lower 48 getting bent out of shape over global warming that is mostly only affecting people in the remote north, while we in the remote north burn our styrofoam to save a little $. Penny wise, pound foolish, I suspect. But this is what I wanted to examine, to find out.

So I thinking we’re paying at least 11 cents per tray just to get them to the post office. Then the gas (at $6 or more per gallon) to haul them everywhere and the salary of those doing the hauling, plus using up the big trash bags when they’re done. I think I can quite safely say 13 cents per tray. So we have about 65 kids and some staff and community members who eat at school every meal, so lets say 80 trays per meal. 80 trays * $.13 = $10.40. Meanwhile, we live in an area (see Wade-Hampton Census area and Bethel Census area) with outrageous unemployment over 25%, where you have no difficulty finding someone who would be willing to wash 80 reusable trays in an hour for around $8 in pay.  And if our district is paying a higher price than they should for the trays, and if I’m underestimating the other incidental costs, maybe it’s as much as 18 cents a tray, which would come to $14.40 per meal, about enough to pay for TWO hours of dish duty.  So…wouldn’t it be cheaper to go with the environmentally friendly, reusable lunch tray? I know this is a simplistic analysis, but surely I’m in the ballpark.  Correct me where I’m wrong.

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missing family

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on August 9, 2008

I’ve been apart from Tammy and Claire for around 10 days now.  Feels like for-ev-er.  Its pretty incredible how entwined our lives become with those we love.  I’ve just been realizing how incomplete I am without them these days.  Thanks Jesus for letting us be together!


Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on August 9, 2008

Holy smokes grandma!  Every man, woman, and child in the state is going to get at least $3,200 starting in late September.  This is $2,000+ for the PFD, and $1,200 as a “resource rebate” to help folks pay for the increases in fuel costs (heat, transportation, etc).  So my little family will get almost $10,000 from this.  With no broad-based state taxes of any kind and these kind of annual cash giveaways, no wonder the rest of the country considers us a bunch of freeloaders.  There was a lot of heartburn and hand-wringing over the resource rebate and how to do that  Ideas considered:  give more to the poor,  pay the utilities directly, reimburse people for energy bills when they submit receipts, give out debit cards that only work at gas stations and are automatically recharged with $100 every month from the state, give a smaller cash handout and increase the government buyin for the PCE program (subsidizes the cost of kWh in the bush), and many more.
I haven’t put tons of thought into it and don’t really have one approach that I thought was clearly best.  I tend to favor long-term solutions that hurt now but work out really well down the road (sometimes WAY down the road.  This approach would not serve me well in politics!).  So I’d be all for putting the money into smart wind and hydro projects that are expensive but pay for themselves after many years and then give “free” power.  But still I just had to bring this up just because the dollar amount is pretty darn significant.  For my neighbors, who may have 6 people living in a 2-room home, that is a huge portion of their annual income.  I think we’ll have to do some serious school fundraisers this fall!  Cakewalks every night in October!  : – )


Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on August 9, 2008

Alaska is 50 years old this year, as a state.  I read this fantastic speech by Ernest Gruening, the last territorial governor and first senator from Alaska.  In case this link eventually breaks, just google his name and the title of the speech “Let us end American Colonialism.”  I’ve known of Gruening before, but hadn’t heard of the speech.  It’s a great primer for the uninitiated to get some insight into why old-timer Alaskans have some of the ideas and perspectives they do regarding the federal government and the lower 48 in general.

I remember learning in Alaska history that Gruening left office and Alaska for that matter a pretty bitter guy who had little good to say about the state and people he served so well for so long.  He managed to implement a modest tax on the salmon industry, which was a monumental task.  At that time they were THE industry, and their Seattle lawyers reputedly sat in the legislative gallery and passed notes to lap-dog lawmakers who looked their way for how to vote.  Gruening overcame that powerful lobby to get a small tax put in place, which gave the territory some desperately needed revenue.  Later an income tax was put in place too, which was repealed in the heady oil $$ early 80s under Gov Hammond, who would later state that his failure to veto that legislation was his greatest mistake in office.  Anyway, if you like history and/or Alaska, read the speech.


Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on August 5, 2008

An editorial in the ADN talks about teacher turnover.  I have come to believe it is probably the biggest common obstacle to success for students in the bush.  I don’t have the exact numbers, but I’ve heard the average teacher in LKSD stays for 2 years.  What you have is a lot of teachers who leave after 1 year, and a few who leave after many many years.

$2.99 gas guarantee

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on August 1, 2008

I’ve meant to write about this (and several other things) all summer but was waaaay too busy.  Here is an abbreviated version.  This program basically gives you 3 years of gas at a fixed price of $2.99, anywhere in the US (no geographical exclusions that I’m aware of).  According to a lot of analysis, its not that great a deal compared to the cash rebate you can take instead.  But that analysis is based on an average gas price of $5/gallon.  what about $8/gallon, which is a realistic bush alaska village price?  Or even $10 as it is in a few places where gas must be flown in.  And when it first came out I read some of the fine print and as I recall the gas card benefit is yours as the buyer, even if you immediately sell the truck.  Or you could buy the truck with someone in the city as co-owners.  You only use it when you go to town to buy groceries, they use it the rest of the time.  But you get the $2.99 gas card.  3 years of filling your snowgo/atv/boat for $2.99 gallon.  The fine print, as I recall, didn’t exclude this type of thing.  You just get a credit card type of thing that you use at the station along with your own form of payment for $2.99/gallon.   However, my big fear would be that they wouldn’t work with the tiny village marinas and then you’d be out of luck.  Anyway, it was just a thought and something reminded me of it.  Of course, the whole promo ended yesterday so this is meaningless (meaningless!).