Pacific High School
The Community School
Sitka Education Association
Inside Pacific High School (PHS) in Sitka, Alaska, the walls that separate classrooms are designed to be removed, allowing for openness, robust conversations, and shared learning experiences. Once inside, it may seem like this is an untraditional education environment, but this couldn’t be further from the truth because tradition, culture, and community are the bedrock upon which Pacific High is built.
PHS employs only four full-time teachers for their 40 students, the majority of whom are Alaska Native. This student-to-teacher ratio is by design, developed to meet the individual needs of every student which may not be feasible in a larger classroom environment. This approach has led to more students requesting transfers to PHS over the last several years, a fact that Principal Mandy Summer is thrilled about.
“The overarching philosophy of Pacific High School is every student can succeed given the right supports and the right amount of time.”
It’s clear to see why PHS is such an attractive option for students. The curriculum, from science to social studies, is deeply rooted in a place-based method of instruction. To learn about ecology, students explore the lifecycle of salmon by working in the Sitka Hatchery, they plant and harvest indigenous crops, and learn how to live a subsistence lifestyle in line with Tlingit values. Lessons about the functions of government include meetings with tribal leaders and members of the Sitka City Assembly to underscore the importance of engagement and community. Real issues are discussed, and real solutions are proposed.
The ability of the teachers to help bridge the gap between high school lessons and real-world applications is deliberate and deeply meaningful. The students who attend PHS are often considered “at-risk”, but that’s a challenge the staff is eager to embrace and they’ve seen how kids respond.
“PHS is meaningful to me because Pacific brings in so much community from the culture here in Sitka,” said Clover, a senior at Pacific High. “I’m Tlingit, so I get to still experience my culture within the school.”
One reason Pacific High seems so unique is the interconnected nature of everything taught. The economics of food prices in an off-the-road community serves as a lesson in supply and demand while also providing a segue into soil testing, food preservation, and culinary arts. Salmon, the lifeblood of many Alaska communities also has practical applications in teaching history, art, language, nutrition, and commerce. Everything has a purpose and no opportunity is squandered.
The students who graduate from Pacific High are not only prepared to succeed academically but also to live and find meaning in the community of Sitka. The exposure they get to career opportunities throughout the school year eclipse any job fair as they are highly relevant to the occupations unique to Southeast Alaska.
“A lot of students want to go outside and engage in these [subsistence] activities, but they don’t have the resource or the mentorship,” said Matt Groen, the Social Studies teacher at PHS. “We provide that opportunity for students to really engage in a constructive way to spend that downtime, and sometimes that even translates into a career.”
Pacific High School may be small, but growth is on the mind of every staff member because they know they can reach more students. Principal Summer is exploring the viability of a middle school option, something she believes will help students experience their academic model earlier and keep more kids from falling through the cracks. This approach also seems to resonate with the broader community as volunteers seem to always be present in the halls and classrooms, eager to help expand the school garden, write grants, or share their life and career experiences with the students.
Together, the students and staff at PHS have created something truly special. Through hard work, determination, and the courage to try something unconventional, they’ve built more than a school, they’ve built a community. NEA-Alaska is proud of our educators who have the vision and talent to do everything possible to reach every student.