Sixty years of schooling in Haines Junction, 1949-2009: That’s a few gallons of water under the Dezadeash River Bridge.
For nine years, teachers taught school without a school. They lived and taught in a recreation hall on the riverbank.
Three long, green, army buildings, log cabins and outbuildings huddled there at the base of the Kluane Mountain Range.
In 1949, the first teacher taught with approximately 25 students, Grades 1 to 8, and no parent volunteers.
Later, six teachers – Doris Batty, Tish Tomlin and Ellen Harris (the Cooper sisters), Lillian Davidson, Shirley Andrist, and Marion (Mayowski) Langevin – taught in pairs.
They could all tell the same story.
Mayowski and Andrist taught together in 1955-56.
“Those Army buildings had been constructed when the Alaska Highway was built,” writes Andrist in a letter.
“One had a classroom, a cramped teacher’s quarters in the middle, and a hall and canteen on the other end.
“Unfortunately for Marion, she had the canteen end of the building,” Andrist writes. “Many mornings I would see her strutting over to the foreman’s house to announce to him there would be no school until someone came over to clear out the beer bottles.
“There was also lots of fun in the settlement – a few movies, curling, dances, but hardships as well. Our bedclothes stuck to the wall in that army building, and I struggled to learn to use a wood cook stove, even for heat.”
Lillian Davidson taught with Tish Tomlin.
“My classroom served as the recreation hall and canteen for the community,” writes Davidson in a letter. “We often dragged bleachers up and down for movies and such.
“With the freezing and thawing of the ground, the partitions in that building would shift, leaving a space at the roof or floor, but at least there was running water.”
Other resources were scarce.
“Teachers were challenged by often using their own resources,” Davidson continues. “There was no such thing as a library, and only small supplies of crayons, watercolors and drawing paper for art.
“For music, I would sometimes put on a record and teach the students to polka.”
Sports were limited, but the students did venture down the Haines Road for tobogganing and skiing.
Supervision of the teachers’ work was slight. “The superintendent from Whitehorse visited occasionally and was the only superior I had to deal with,” writes Davidson.
“The pupils were really good kids. I loved my job although it was hard work.
“And there was no need to keep up with the Joneses – there weren’t any.”
For the first 25 years of Haines Junction’s existence, few teachers stayed and taught for more than one or two years.
Tomlin was the first. She and Harris came in 1952; they intended to stay for one year. Harris still lives in Whitehorse.
Tomlin raised her family in Haines Junction and taught at various times. She passed away in 1995.
School in Haines Junction changed with the times.
The territorial government opened its first school building in 1958, across the street from the old lagoon.
Referred to as the pink school, it had two classrooms, an apartment, and a basement playroom and library.
In 1966, the territorial government built a three-room school for Grades 1 to 10, near the water tower.
The pink school then became two apartments for teachers.
Virginia Freese lived in one of those apartments.
“It was quiet – a nice part of town even though it was across the street from the lagoon,” she says.
The largest classroom remained vacant until the government introduced Kindergarten in the mid-1970s. Sharon Holloway became the kindergarten teacher.
“With families (not Freeses) living in the school, we sometimes had cooking smells wafting into our classroom,” Holloway says. “Or sometimes their cat wandered in.”
Late 1970s, Kluane National Park Reserve brought an influx of people, Champagne Aishihik expanded their village, and teachers and other families began staying and building homes.
The water tower school became overcrowded with no space for alternate programs. Two portable classrooms had previously been added for the primary grades.
“Teaching in the portables was good,” says Freese. We did our activities without bothering the older grades.”
“And it all held up in the earthquake of ‘77, even though the whole trailer was swaying.”
The pink school apartments again became classroom space. In one apartment (full disclosure), I instituted P.E.P. for 10 teens – a Practical Education Program with Work Experience.
The three-room apartment with a full kitchen proved ideal for the program. This became the forerunner of equivalency education.
Holloway continued with kindergarten in the large classroom; Kate Postoloski operated a daycare in the second apartment.
(Principal Wolf Riedl dubbed us women, “The Lagoon Sisters.”)
In 1980, the main school underwent a major expansion and renovation. This added new classrooms and office space, a library, a large gymnasium, wood shop, home economics room, art room, and science lab.
Art, sports, science, and music programs blossomed. No more afternoons of the polka and 45s.
The school, then named St. Elias Community School, accommodated kindergarten to Grade 12 with room for special programs and options.
The pink school was soon dismantled.
Current and recently retired teachers identify some losses, some gains in the community that brought changes to the school system from 60 years ago.
The advent of television in the town in 1976, created a new dynamic for the community and school. It became increasingly more difficult to engage the students.
Before television, even young students were known to sit quietly through long documentaries such as The Life of Winston Churchill.
“The community changed,” says Freese. “Attendance and interest in school and community events really declined.”
(At first, the town had only HBO TV – at suppertime.)
Political changes sometimes created new direction for the school.
In 1976, the emerging national issue of (Native) language erupted in Haines Junction.
Teacher Trevor Bremner had initiated a Southern Tutchone project with Language Master.
After months of political debate, First Nations (Native) Language was incorporated into Yukon schools’ curriculum in 1977-78.
Longtime resident, Glen Hurlburt, was principal at the time.
“We supported Trevor’s open-minded initiative,” he says.
“It was difficult, but I believe it moved the community beyond single mindedness regarding culture. It opened the door for more First Nations curriculum, like the Bicultural Program at the school now.”
Also in 1977, the school reached the required enrollment of 100 to warrant its first secretary, the now late Mary Morin.
As everywhere, technology also produced major changes.
“Computers were the worst thing to happen to the shop programs,” says retired Shop teacher, Rich Clark. “Suddenly shop classes seemed to become obsolete.
“And computer labs were put into rural schools with no additional staff or funding,” he adds.
“With the advent of computers, e-mail and internet, expectations increase daily,” says Ruth Lawrence, principal since 2001.
“So much record keeping and stats gathering has changed the administrator’s focus from being an educational leader.
“But, we have all that technology for teaching tools as well, and that’s positive.”
In the 1990s, a new library and two classrooms were added to accommodate computer labs.
After 20 to 30 years at the school, the long-term teachers agree expectations are higher, but they see the positives outweighing the negatives.
“The school has been great,” says Clark. “I could not have wished for a better school for my own girls to graduate from.”
“The community and parental involvement has increased, and students’ goals have developed beyond the physical labour market,” says Riedl.
“Maybe what schools are supposed to do is not as clear as it once was, but looking at the successes of many of our students, I think we have shown them the world.”
“We have many volunteers in the school,” adds Holloway. It is a real community school with emphasis on sharing, respect, and empathy.”
“I think consistency of staff has been a major contribution,” says Lawrence. “And the staff and students have an esprit de corps and mutual respect.
“This is by far the best job I could ever have had.”
Sixty years of water under the bridge – and perhaps just a few bridges under the water.
(The book, From First We Met to Internet, recounts more memories from school and community. It is available at Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse.)