Out There

school reform

Posted in teaching by Pete on September 30, 2018

What is the point of the educational system in place in America today?  There are some very fundamental differences of opinion about this.

Do schools exist to teach our kids?  Yes.  Teach them what?  (Values?  Lists of facts?  How to think?  How to get along?  How to submit to authority?  Which values to have?) For what purpose?  (Job?  College?  Happiness?  Efficiency?)

Do schools exist to prepare kids for life as adults?  How?

Based on your answer to the above, what is the best way for schools to actually accomplish this purpose?

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Spending

Our district uses apple products like crazy, for pretty much everything.  Every teacher just got a new macbook air last month.  Every elementary teacher also got a new full-size ipad.  Every student in our school in grades 8-12 has their own macbook pro or macbook air (about 30 kids).  In addition, our school has about 25 more macbook pros and macbook airs that kids use on a rotating basis from the office.  So between teachers and kids, that is roughly 65 macbooks.  I bought my last 2 chromebooks for around $150 each.  I don’t understand why we don’t use chromebooks, and save a ton of money, like most districts are doing around the country.   65 chromebooks at $150 each = less than $10,000.  65 macbooks at $1,200 (this is a guess.  I would imagine we probably paid more than this for the pros, and maybe a bit less than this for the airs?) each = $78,000, for a difference of about $68,000.  This is almost enough to pay for another certified teacher at our site – a big deal considering we currently have 6.75 certified teachers. (I should also mention here that our school does have about 20+ chromebooks that a teacher won in a contest, and those are used on a daily basis as well.) . The other day, one of the top guys in the district called my little samsung chromebook “garbage” when he saw me working on it.  He asked why I wasn’t using the macbook air that I had just received, and I told him I preferred the chromebook, which is the honest truth.  Anyway, the district’s decision to go with apple products just seems wasteful.  I inquired as to whether the 300-400 new macbook airs that the teachers just received (and the new ipads) was grant-funded or something and was told that no, it was just how the district decided to spend it’s money.**

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I recently saw this in the minutes from a recent LKSD board meeting:

Approved the purchase of the recommended Language Arts materials and resources in an amount not to exceed $982,242 with authorization for additional funding from unreserved fund balance in an amount not to exceed $582,242.

Now, up front I want to say that I have dear friends who have been very involved in the rollout of this curriculum.  This post is not about them.  It’s not even about THIS rollout.  It’s about using this specific example as a springboard for discussion about how/why funding decisions get made in education.  The $1.5ish million mentioned above paid for our new language arts curriculum, the vaunted “Reach for Reading” (RfR) from National Geographic.  Our school just started using this curriculum in August of 2018, in grades k-5 (or 6?).  I know that the fifth grade curriculum alone was like 8-12 heavyish boxes of materials.  4 or 5 boxes of leveled readers, 1 box of “explorer” books, 1 box of teacher editions (4 different volumes), another box with various other materials like the “academic talk” flip book and many others, 2 boxes with the reach into phonics booklets, and more.  Many districts are switching to Reach for Reading, and by all accounts, it is an outstanding curriculum that delivers challenging material with high expectations for achievement, along with differentiated material for ELLs (English Language Learners) and underperforming students.  In LKSD, RfR is replacing a curriculum called “Storytown” that was in wide use across the country, and is probably increasingly on the outs these days.

The thing is, LKSD turns over it’s curriculum on a schedule.  I can’t remember if it’s 6 or 7 years, but the district is constantly rotating through a list, so that 6 or 7 years from right now, we’ll be rolling out another new language arts curriculum at a similar cost, adjusted for inflation and student count.  And keep in mind that the learning curve for the transition to RfR has been steep.  Training in the new curriculum was the main emphasis of the district-wide inservice, which the district spent huge money on, to fly every teacher (300?  400?) to Bethel for 3 days of training – also paying to house and feed them during that time.  I’d guess it cost at least $200,000.**  And most of the teachers are still figuring out how to best use the curriculum.  This period of breaking in a new thing means less effective instruction for our students.

I think this whole process is duuuuummmmmmmmb.

How can Storytown go from being the best possible option for our kids, to being a major problem, in just 7 years?  We face many formidable problems, but Storytown is not one of them.  An above-average teacher could use storytown for the next 10 years and dwarf the progress made by their average peers who are using RfR.  That is my belief.  I’d love to see a study on the actual effects of the 2 side by side, kind of like they discuss here with other factors.  Several times during my 15+ years here, I’ve seen boatloads (literally) of textbooks and other materials taken out of the school to be thrown away.  Some of these were literally never used.  Most were used, but only a few years and they were still in great condition.  But getting anything to/from rural Alaska is very expensive, and our school has one small storage room, so…to the dump it goes.

What if we spent some of that $1.5M to $2M on

  • bonuses for teachers whose students’ test scores went up by a surprising amount?
  • Or on funding effective and inexpensive early childhood education, like parents as teachers programs in every village.
  • Or on bonuses for teachers who stay 5 years, 10 years, 20 years.  Turnover is killing our schools, I believe, way more than outdated curriculum.  Because the learning curve is so steep, in terms of cross-cultural adjustment.  In most rural Alaskan school districts, teachers stay about an average of 2 years, and keep in mind that the replacements are very often 22 years old and just out of college (not super effective teachers).  It’s a bad cycle.
  • Or better teacher housing!  Our building is so old that people literally cannot agree how old it is.  I’ve heard everything from the 30s to the 70s.  It has lead pipes, lead paint in places, and asbestos.  When I drilled into the wall to push a cable through, I found that all of the insulation had fallen down to the bottom couple of feet in the walls.  And there is no room for anyone who wants to have children.  How does that help anyone stay long term, which is what everyone agrees we need?  That $1.5-$2m would be more than enough for a new teacher housing 4-plex at our site.
  • Or how about direct cash compensation to students for good grades, or better yet, higher test scores (go up by X points = Y dollars).  Some districts have already done this, and the results were very promising, and it wasn’t actually expensive relative to the other stuff they had tried.

I’m just brainstorming here, but in 5-10 minutes I’ve come up with a list of things that I’m pretty confident would be at least as good and potentially way better, in terms of ROI, and that “return” based on accomplishing whatever it was you came up with to my question at the top.

And remember, LKSD (and probably most districts) does this every year!  In 2020, Everyday Math is out and we get a new math curriculum.  Our students get very low scores.  Those scores aren’t low because of Storytown or Everyday Math.  We have many challenges, but terrible, unusable curriculum is not one of them.  So why are we spending so much of our limited funding to fix something that isn’t even a problem?  Cynical answer – our test scores are bad, and the administration needs to look like it is taking things seriously and making changes, and it’s easier to change materials than it is to fire people.  Hopeful answer – ????  Incompetence?  People sincerely believe the curriculum is the problem, and is more urgent than our other problems?

**I can understand this maybe if we had more money than we knew what to do with.  But we don’t.  The state of Alaska has been in a budget crisis for a few years now due to falling oil prices, resulting in flat-funding or miniscule annual increases for education.  Our classified staff are in the middle of a 5 year period where their wages have been frozen, because “the money just isn’t there.”  Our certified staff approved a new contract a few years ago that saw our actual pay go backwards, in real dollars, over a 3 year period (village teacher rent increases of 10% per year – these increases were greater than the raises to the salary schedule).

Carbon Tax

Posted in politics by Pete on September 11, 2015

I’m not going to actually analyze this giant issue here and now, but an article in the ADN today caught my eye.  It cites a study that found that rural Alaskans would “benefit financially from a proposed national program designed to increase energy efficiency and move away from fossil fuels by charging a fee for carbon and returning dividends to households.”

Specifically:

Dividend payments to Alaska households in the study area would total $5.9 million the first year, which would be $2.2 million more than the cost of the fee. “Given the data we have, people in rural Alaska would fare well,” Colt said.

And the counter argument:

One important caveat found in the study is that while most residents would get more in dividends than they would pay in fees, a minority would not. “That is a concern with every kind of assistance program,” Colt said.

Although I’d heard of market-based approaches to the climate/carbon emissions problem before, I was intrigued enough to check out the org who paid for the study.  Their website has this banner at the top of the front page:

CCL banner

Nice.  And the more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded.  At first blush I like this plan.  I realize that as a middle to upper middle class person using lots of electricity in a village that gets most of its power from inefficient diesel generators, I probably will pay more than I would receive.  But the economist in me believes that an incentive-based approach is the most effective way to get everyone (and utilities) to pay attention and actually change their behavior.  Isn’t it preferable to intense regulation by the EPA that is the most likely alternative??  Doing nothing just kicks the ever-increasing costs and problems down the road to future generations – foolish.  Am I wrong here?  Feel free to comment if you can state your case reasonably with a minimum of a few sentences.

One other thing to note is the comments section at the bottom of that ADN article.  Classic.  In a depressing, mind-numbing way.  Way to think things through and put others first guys.

Another twist in Bethel’s history with alcohol

Posted in grim stuff, politics by Pete on March 30, 2015

Remember in 2009 when Bethel voted to go from damp to wet, ostensibly because they were upset that Sarah Palin had pushed to cut the monthly importation limits (20 drinks per day) allowed per person in damp villages in half, among other things?

“Hawkins gathered names from friends at his backyard steam house. To him, the vote to go wet is about more than the failed attempt to tighten liquor limits. The problem, he thinks, is that lawmakers in Juneau have imposed restrictions on the city for more than 20 years, making them slap “ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE” labels on their luggage, putting their names in a database of booze buyers and trying to chop liquor limits without asking voters.

Quote is from this article from September 2009, and that article was originally in the ADN but can’t find it now, but prompted this post.  A similar quote from that post, about the same Bethelite (Tom Hawkins) is this one:
“We want the citizens of Bethel to be able to choose what they want or don’t want on these alcohol issues. We don’t want the state to continue to flog us with these rules,” said Tom Hawkins, 60.”
Also in the article was the widely-circulated argument by the wet-vote proponents that there would never be legal alcohol sales in Bethel.  That the move to go wet was just about the airline sticker, and keeping government out of our business, etc etc.  I remember several of the organizers going on record that they would be the first in line to oppose anyone who attempted to get a liquor license to sell booze in Bethel.  They stressed that this wasn’t a vote about whether alcohol should be able to be sold in Bethel, just about whether we should allow the government to require the sticker on our checked boxes of booze on Alaska Air, and whether we should allow them to monitor how many bottles we were ordering from Anchorage each month.  See this quote from the same article as the first quote:

“Hawkins says he and other petitioners would be the strongest opponents if the city tried to start selling booze.”

And

“Opening a liquor store is a “no-no in my” book, Trantham said. He said he’d fight it.”

And

“The ballot proposition would wipe away the shipping restrictions altogether. Westlake, one of the petitioners who put the question to a vote, says it’s a smaller-government thing. “I don’t want the state involved in our day-to-day life.”  The state’s push to halve limits fueled the backlash, he said.”

So now we get…the rest of the story.  Bethel Native Corporation lost it’s anchor tenant at their gigantic, beautiful building across the street from the hospital when Swanson’s mysteriously and without warning went out of business (which could probably be the subject of a very long series of posts in and of itself – crazy dysfunction on many levels, it appears).  BNC is clearly desperate to collect rent from someone, anyone, and in order to best serve their shareholders…they are pursuing opening a liquor store.  Meetings before city council have begun, and AC is planning on opening their own store too.  But I haven’t heard anything from Hawkins or Trantham or any of the people from 2009 who said they would be the “strongest opponents” on the issue.  When I heard about the liquor store opening, I immediately recalled those promises and had to google it to find what was reported at the time.  And maybe they have spoken up recently in opposition to the liquor store, I really don’t know, but if they have it hasn’t gotten coverage.  I think I’m going to give them a phone call and see what they have to say, 6 years later.  Might have to record it.  : – )

OK, so where do I stand?
I have written a lot of posts over the years on this issue – a byproduct of having strong feelings about it, which is a byproduct of working with FAS kids, comforting freaked out kids in our home village who have fled their house, and other alcohol-fueled heartache.  I get that you can’t stop people from doing what they want to do.  But actually, what the majority of people here in Kasigluk want to do, is have no alcohol available.  They voted.  As did almost all of the 52 villages for which Bethel is the hub.  Think about it – if Bethel was DRY, where would the booze come from?  (newbies remember Bethel and all of western AK is not on the road system)  Suitcases and the mail.  And homebrew.  And the price would skyrocket.  Which means less people drinking.  That’s a fact.  Just as higher cigarette taxes result in fewer people trying smoking.  If the price of illegal booze triples, there is simply less to go around.  So there is some frustration on my end that Bethel voters (mostly out-of-towners) continually give folks in the villages the finger, so to speak, in regard to this issue.
The only other option I could maybe get behind is the “package store” concept the troopers were promoting many years ago.  Basically it would be a large liquor store in Bethel, and it would be the ONLY alcohol option.  No more flying it in and picking it up at ACE air cargo.  And the package store requires picture ID, and tracks your purchases, and obviously won’t sell if your ID indicates you are from an outlying village.  This doesn’t solve everything either, but would at least make it a little tougher on the bootleggers.  Leave a comment if you like – but note that I screen them and it needs to be constructive and not abusive in order to get published.

Kindergarten Truancy

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on February 18, 2015

This is meant as an open letter to the Alaska legislature, Governor Walker, parents, and educational leaders across the state.  Alaska law currently makes school attendance mandatory for kids between the ages of 7 and 16.

Here is the statute:

(a) Every child between seven and 16 years of age shall attend school at the public school in the district in which the child resides during each school term. Every parent, guardian or other person having the responsibility for or control of a child between seven and 16 years of age shall maintain the child in attendance at a public school in the district in which the child resides during the entire school term, except as provided in (b) of this section.

I’ve come to think this is a problem.

All too often I see kids who are enrolled in kindergarten who attend extremely sporadically and are then retained.  Today in one of the rural school districts I work in I was asking the kindergarten teacher about one of the students on my caseload, trying to get a feel for the student’s standing relative to their classmates, their progress this year, and any teacher concerns.  The teacher reported that the child can perform about as well as their classmates when they are paying attention and physically in school.  She mentioned that three kids were retained from last year’s kindergarten class (including my student), and she wants to retain 4 more from this year’s class, and she believes the reason for why all those kids are behind is truancy, with some of her kids attending about 2/3 of the time (40 absences by mid Feb).  I asked if the school has filed truancy reports or anything and she reminded me that until the child is 7 there is nothing the teacher or school can do.  I’ve been involved in education in the bush for over 10 years and I’ve seen this happen with kindergartners time after time.  But today it just struck me as illogical and silly that we go after parents who let their 4th grader or 8th grader stay home, but we allow it with kindergartners.  Truancy is a huge, chronic issue in the bush.  If we allow it to be a habitual thing for the first 2 years of school with no penalty, should we be surprised that it remains an issue for the rest of that child’s life in school?

I believe the intent of the law is to allow parents to decide when their child is ready to start kindergarten, so the state isn’t forcing 5 year-olds to begin school.  I don’t take issue with that.  However, I do take issue when the parents decide it IS time to start school, but then the child shows up half the time.  If it is obvious that it isn’t working for whatever reason, the parents should withdraw the child and try again the following year.  Or at least have a conversation with the teacher where it is acknowledged that they aren’t really trying to go to first grade in the next year and that the school shouldn’t be trying to move heaven and earth to get the child the extra help required to make it happen.

The law in section (b) makes exceptions to mandatory attendance, for things like illness, private school, living far from the nearest school, etc.  Then way at the end there is this:

(c) If a parent, legal guardian, or other person having the responsibility for or control of the child elects to enroll a child who is six years of age in first grade at a public school, after enrollment, the child is subject to the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section. If the parent or guardian of a child who is six years of age and is enrolled in first grade at a public school determines, within 60 days after the child is enrolled, that the best interests of the child are not being served by enrollment in the first grade, the child may be withdrawn from school, and the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section do not apply to the child until the child is seven years of age.

I think it should be changed to this:

(c) If a parent, legal guardian, or other person having the responsibility for or control of the child elects to enroll a child who is FIVE OR six years of age in KINDERGARTEN OR first grade at a public school, after enrollment, the child is subject to the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section. If the parent or guardian of a child who is FIVE OR six years of age and is enrolled in KINDERGARTEN OR first grade at a public school determines, within 60 days after the child is enrolled, that the best interests of the child are not being served by enrollment in the first grade, the child may be withdrawn from school, and the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section do not apply to the child until the child is seven years of age.

This is a small change but would help to combat runaway truancy, while not taking away from the spirit of the law which allows parents the freedom to determine when their child begins kindergarten.

Simple Solar Heating System

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on March 21, 2014

Simple Solar Heating System

Wow, I love this.  I definitely have an inventor streak (P is for “possibility,” right?) and this thing just seems like a no-brainer.  Here is another link of a home-made copycat version that a guy put on his super-cool container home (which itself is worthy of another post – I believe he built that entire thing start to finish for like $20,000).  Note the youtube video near the top of that link.  Basically a bunch of pop cans in a box with a clear lid facing toward the sun.  Drill holes in the pop cans and line them all up end to end in several rows.  Then a hose going from the wall near the floor in your home goes in one side of the box, and another hose goes out the other end of the box into your home near the ceiling.  Add a small fan and you get a free heat increase of over 50 degrees F.  I’m actually considering buying one of these – I could mount it on a south wall of my little conex garage.  Beats paying over $7 per gallon for stove oil.  I’m kind of surprised I haven’t seen or heard of any of these in rural AK and it *really* makes me want to try it and see how it would do here on a sunny day in January with only 6 hours or so of light.  Would even make a great student project – like a secondary science class thing.  Cansolair!

Calling all sewage system planners!

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on November 22, 2013

Calling all sewage system planners!

I know there are a ton of plumbers and aspiring sewage system engineers who read this blog.  So I thought I would do you the favor of calling your attention to this contest.  Dropping sarcasm, I applaud the state for thinking outside the box to do what they can to improve things for rural Alaska.  The top 6 designs teams get their project funded to the next stage of development.

Cool Alaska Homes

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on October 29, 2012

We’ve thought of building a home where we live in the bush for quite some time.  There are some, no many, major hurdles though, like how do you acquire land when everything is native allotments or federally held?  I was also told by a guy who has built scores of homes in the Alaska bush that no bank will fund (loan) a home project in any village like ours.  They are ok with Nome, Barrow, Kotzebue, Bethel, etc, but not the outlying villages, unless you qualify for funding under some government programs targeting native home ownership, which we don’t.

Homes built and lived in by kassaq families are basically unheard of in our region, other than Bethel.  I can’t speak for all 50-something villages that call Bethel their hub, but I’m familiar with at least a dozen of them and have never heard of it happening.  One obvious reason is outsiders don’t live in these places, other than teachers.  And teachers would have to move from teacher housing with it’s subsidized rent, running water, and free heat to the reality of what their neighbors face:  crazy high building costs, outrageous heating bills, and probably no running water (although that is slowly changing, village by village in this area).

I say all this as a backdrop to three homes I’ve read about over the years and thought were pretty cool as they address the water, heat, and power issues.   Here is the first one, and here is the second, designed by the same guy.

This third one is a home built in the 1980s that “makes” its own water.  That link is a bit “fluffy,” so if you want the  good details see this narrative by the guy who designed it, including lots of free plans telling you how to go about doing something similar yourself.

Of the three, the last is the coolest to me personally because water is such a bedeviling challenge out here on the YK Delta.  HUGE money is spent trying to put in piped water systems that won’t freeze up in the winter.  This house uses rain water and reuses its own “grey” water and requires no external pipes.  Admittedly, all three of these designs require big up front investments, but I don’t think the payout period is too outrageously long.  At least not here where we pay $7/gallon for heating fuel, over 50 cents a KwH for power, and who knows what per gallon of running water which mostly doesn’t even exist yet.

Amazing Amazon

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on September 23, 2012

I’ve been meaning to do a series of posts on shopping tips for those new to the bush.  This is sort of jumping the gun but I’m throwing it out there because if I don’t do it now I’ll forget about it and the moment is gone.

Just another item on amazon, 10 pounds of jasmine rice for $12.22.  But when it came the other day I realized how crazy cheap it is.  I can’t even figure out how they can cover the shipping.  Checked usps.com and 10.5 lbs from Seattle to here is $16.34 for parcel post which usually takes a month (this came in 10 days).  I’ve mailed boxes from the northwest to here maybe 25 times and I’ve *never* had one arrive that quickly parcel post so I don’t think that is how it was mailed.  Priority mail for 10 lbs would be $31.55.  Sure maybe globalization has brought the price way down but how are they possibly making money selling it for $12 with free shipping?  Maybe they have some kind of volume discount deal with the usps?  Even so, it can’t be that big of a discount.  Maybe I shouldn’t publish this.  You know that giant deficit the usps has been running every year?  Could I be the cause??  

Seriously, the usps is the greatest bargain ever–for those of us in the bush especially.  When we’re in Anchorage and I do one of our two annual shopping runs, I usually haul about 20-something boxes to the post office, each weighing an average of about 55 pounds.  A 55 pound box from ANC to KUK is $20.14 parcel post, delivered in about 7-20 days usually (and way faster, I believe, if our mail wasn’t delivered from Bethel via hovercraft.  Friends in other villages around the state report they get parcel post in less than a week).  What does the free market charge?  Northern Air Cargo (NAC) would charge me a total of $57.08 for the same box just to get it to Bethel!  (I’ll spare you the calculations but you can check it yourself here.  I’m assuming there is nothing that would fall under an “exception rate” which would push the price even higher)  You have to call them for the price from Bethel to Kasigluk as it goes on Ryan Air on that leg, but the price is usually pretty close to the same price paid to get it from ANC to BET.  So the free market price would be probably right around $100, which is why I say $20 is a steal, and why Alaska is such a losing proposition for the usps. You could probably get the price down to $80 by using Ace Air Cargo or Everts instead of NAC, but you get the idea.  While you’ve got me going, how about forty-something cents to mail a letter across the stinkin country?!?  Ridiculous!  And people complain when this goes up a cent or two.  

The next time you don’t like the price at the PO, think about how much you’d have to pay someone else, anyone else, to deliver it for you.  Then smile, pay, and say thank you!

alaska teacher blogs

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on September 4, 2012

Stumbled on a couple of good teacher blogs and wanted to pass them along.  This post has some good advice for those considering teaching in bush Alaska.  I’ve met this teacher in Chevak during my travels as an SLP.  The blog is worth exploring beyond this one post.

Here is a humorous but oh so true list of “You know you’re a teacher in the bush Alaska when…”  I especially like #3, which I’ve seen happen a few times, like when I found a giant (seriously, ginormous) swan hanging by the neck outside our friend Deanna’s door.

And here is an old blog that is apparently no longer being updated, but the photos are great and make me want to visit the area around the tiny village of Perryville.

Using your frequent flier miles in bush Alaska

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on September 2, 2012

More than you ever wanted to know about it!  I’m writing this as a help for people new to the Alaska bush, as a reference for how to get the most bang out of your frequent flier mile bucks.  You need to figure out how much your miles are worth.  The general rule of thumb is that they are worth about 1 cent per mile, very roughly.  People have done a lot of research about this, like this chart that concludes that the average Alaska Air award is worth .79 cents per mile.  An article with similar findings is here.  When you fly in bush Alaska you can get a lot more out of your miles than that.  If you don’t want to take the time to read this giant post, skip to the last paragraph as it’s maybe the most important part.

Everyone knows that almost everything is more expensive in the bush.  This is true for flights as well.  The lowest scheduled seat fare price from my village to Bethel (25 miles) costs $204 round trip as of August 2012.  Crazy!  To get to Anchorage you will pay north of $400 RT from Bethel unless you find an unusually low fare.  So this means you can easily pay close to $700 RT just to get to Anchorage from my village.  (On a related note, you can currently fly RT from ANC to Frankfurt Germany nonstop on Condor Air for $600, or less than it costs for me to fly home in-state)  If we happened to live in a village further from Bethel everything would just cost even more.  The price from Bethel to ScammonBay, HooperBay, or Chevak is about $500 RT, so those folks pay close to $1,000 for an advance-fare ticket to Anchorage.  If you want to fly on to Seattle, you can generally tack on $400 to $600 more for a RT flight (ANC-SEA).

One of the first things to find out is what sort of mileage plan your local bush carriers offer.  For example, in the YK Delta, Yute Air has no mileage plan but you get a $5 coupon for every flight, and you can apply it toward any future flight.  Grant Aviation offers one free one-way flight for every 4 segments you pay for.  Era Aviation has something similar, offering one free one-way flight for every 5 segments you pay for.  This can work out to a huge savings.  In my case, I can pay for the Kasigluk (KUK) to Bethel (BET) Era segments 5 times for a total of $510.  Then I can use those miles to get a free ticket on an Era KUK to ANC one way flight (passing through BET on the way) that usually costs at least $325 or so.  So the 5 paid flights each represent a savings of about $65 ($325 free flight divided by 5 paid flights = $65), meaning each paid flight’s actual cost to me is about $37 ($102 – $65 = $37).  If the mileage ticket is bought at the last minute then the savings is substantially more as last minute tickets cost a lot more $$.  None of these flight examples are contrived trips taken just to get the best deal with miles, they are all flights I make for personal or work reasons on a regular basis.

What about Alaska Air?  If you live in one of the hub communities in the bush that is served by Alaska Air, you don’t have to worry about flights to the outlying villages on bush carriers.  But remember that Alaska isn’t the only option, as airlines like Era Aviation and Pen Air and others offer flights from several hub cities in to Anchorage and Fairbanks.  I will stick with the Bethel examples as that is what I know.  The dollar amount for BET-ERA on Era and Alaska is usually about the same as they match one another for the most part.  However, the mileage plans work very differently.  I’ve already described Era Aviation’s mileage plan.  ANC-BET is 399 miles, but Alaska Air gives you a minimum credit of 500 miles.  An in-state award flight on Alaska Air is 7,500 miles for one-way, and 15,000 for RT.  Given that a one-way flight from BET-ANC is about $225 and RT is $450, that equals a value of about 3 cents per mile.  Another way of thinking about it is that for every 15 one-way Alaska Air flights between ANC and BET, you will earn a free one (15 * 500 = 7,500).  Remember that on ERA you get a free flight for every 5 segments.  Of course you can also use Alaska Air to fly far beyond Anchorage.  It costs 25,000 miles at minimum for a flight from Alaska to the lower 48.  This can be a good use of your miles if you want an expensive ticket like BET/Nome/Kotzebue/Barrow/Dutch Harbor (especially Adak!) etc to some place like Orlando, New York, Dallas, or Chicago.   Just for kicks I checked Kotzebue to Orlando in June 2013 and the RT price on Alaska Air is between $1,100 and $1,500.  Getting a “saver” award seat on these flights (25,000 miles) can be very tricky depending on the dates, but if you can do it they would be worth up to 6 cents per mile.  Adding in possible destinations Hawaii and Mexico gives another array of possibilities that I won’t get into.

Another option is to call Alaska Air and use 10,000 Alaska Air miles to buy a RT flight on Era as they are an Alaska Air mileage plan partner airline.  For example, 10,000 Alaska miles can get you a RT Era ticket from ANC-BET-KUK.  If you used Alaska Air they don’t fly to KUK so you could only get ANC-BET and you would have to pay the $204 for BET-KUK, and you would have to pay 15,000 for the Alaska Air in-state award travel.  In other words, an extra $204 and an extra 5,000 miles.  Note that Alaska Air charges something like $25 per ticket as a “partner airline ticketing fee.”  Even so, this is one of the best ways to use your Alaska Air miles.  10,000 miles and $25 for a RT ticket from ANC-BET-KUK that normally costs about $650 means you’re getting over 6 cents per Alaska air mile.  Remember if we lived in a coastal village the flights to ANC RT would come close to $1,000, meaning you would be getting close to 10 cents per Alaska air mile.  My family and I once used our Alaska Air miles to buy tickets from KUK-BET-ANC-UNK (Unalakleet, to visit friends) RT on Era.  The tickets cost 15,000 miles each plus $25 partner airline ticketing fee.  However, this itinerary would normally cost well over $1,000 each so we were thrilled.

Yute and Grant only fly here in the Bethel region, but Era covers most of the state.  Era gives its passengers a choice between earning Alaska Air miles (actual miles flown) or Era miles.  For example, when I fly from KUK to BET I can take 25 Alaska Air miles or take the segment as credit which as described above (5 segments = a free flight) is worth about $65.  If you figure the 25 Alaska Air miles are worth 1 cent per mile, this is obviously a huge no-brainer (25 cents value vs 65 dollars).  But I still frequently encounter people who live and/or work out here who fly ERA all the time and take the Alaska miles instead of the Era miles!  Which is partly why I wrote this inordinately long post.

This also helps give context to the idea of “mileage runs” people make just to pile up miles.  Tickets like Anchorage to Brazil (12,780 miles on partner airline American) for $564 RT means you’re paying about 4.4 cents per mile.  If you lived in a village outside of Bethel, you could buy that ticket and earn those miles, then turn around and use 10,000 of them to buy a ticket worth more than the $564 you just paid.  In other words, you essentially get a free RT flight to Brazil.  Or Anchorage to Puerto Rico for $567, same idea.  Of course, this makes a lot more sense if you actually want to go to Brazil or Puerto Rico.  But the point is that for those of us in the bush, air miles are worth many multiples more than 1 cent each.

The last thing I’ll present here is that you can buy Alaska Air mileage plan miles for about 2 cents each, as they are giving a 40% bonus until Sept 28, 2012.  Normally the miles cost about 3 cents each.  So the 10,000 miles needed for a RT partner award ticket on ERA will set you back about $200, and you can turn around and use it to buy a ticket worth $400 (ANC-BET RT), $600 (ANC-BET-KUK RT), $1,000 (ANC-BET-Chevak/Scammon/Hooper), or perhaps even more?  To me this is an amazing deal and I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about it.  Phew!  There is so much more I could get into on this subject, but for now tuai, this is too long already.