Nevaeh George (right) will be a seventh grader this fall, but she doesn’t know if she will be going to school in Newtok or Mertarvik. A third of the village is moving to Mertarvik, and students will take classes in a makeshift school located in the Emergency Evacuation Building. Nevaeh paints on an easel at her home in Newtok on July 25, 2019. (Photo by Katie Basile / KYUK)
This school year, some students in Newtok will leave behind most of their friends. In October, 21 families from Newtok will relocate to their new village, Mertarvik, and kids in those families will have to transfer schools.
Kids are curious. They want to know what’s going to happen, and that’s even more true when you’re moving to a brand-new village.
“I mean, I bring it up to my daughter, and they have all these questions and I don’t know how to answer her because I just don’t know yet,” said resident Carolyn George. George works at the school, but she says that neither the district nor the village council have told her what’s going to happen this school year. And classes start in just a few weeks.
“I am really anxious,” George said. “My 4-year-old is starting school and I don’t know how it’s going to be. What if it impacts her learning?”
Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Dan Walker says that they’re working on plans for a school that isn’t fully built yet, which is hard.
Newtok loses 70-90 feet of land a year to erosion and estimates that most of the village will be underwater by 2023 including the school, pictured here with a blue roof on July 25, 2019. (Photo by Katie Basile, KYUK – Bethel)
“I get it. It’s probably frustrating to not know details,” Walker said, “but it’s part of that pioneering phase.”
Another part of pioneering is doing things with less help. George says that some teachers don’t want that kind of responsibility.
“One of the teachers said that she can’t teach first grade to seventh grade,” George said. “I think that’s the reason why some of the teachers left.”
To make things harder, there’s not going be a school building in Mertarvik this year.
“We’re going to retrofit the evacuation center and put up some walls for classrooms,” said Tribal Administrator Andrew John.
LKSD is trying to get funding to build a new school in Mertarvik, but the state wants to see that there are actually kids there before it comes up with the money. That’s why Newtok is racing to finish construction and move people over. In October, the state will count if there are enough kids in Mertarvik to warrant building a school.
Associate teacher Albertina Charles says that at least some of the students won’t want to go this year.
“Most of the high schoolers that play basketball, I don’t think they’re going to move there,” Charles said.
That’s because Mertarvik won’t have a basketball team this year. Albertina’s daughter, Charlotte, was looking forward to her junior year season. And now she has to make a difficult choice between her passion and her mom.
“I don’t know. I can’t even survive a month without her,” said the younger Charles.
Her mother told her, “If I move over there, I want to take you with me so I don’t have to worry about you.”
Albertina Charles says that she’s moving as soon as she can. The house she’s living in now is only 20 feet from the river, but Charlotte Charles, in her Stephen Curry sneakers, isn’t sure. Wherever she decides to live, she’ll have to make the choice soon.
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