A new world opened for Afton Brinkman when she started attending a boarding school 400 miles from home.
She could choose her classes, play sports and learn about college scholarships, none of which was available at her hometown high school in Eagle, Alaska, where she was one of just 10 students.
"It's pretty much improved my life for the better all around," said Brinkman, who graduated from the Nenana Student Living Center this spring.
Once spurned by rural parents who hated sending their children far from home, boarding schools are gaining popularity in sparsely populated Alaska. About 520 Alaska students went to public boarding schools full time this past school year, nearly twice the number from a decade ago.
Many communities in Alaska have fewer than 100 students, making it difficult for school districts to afford teachers for different subjects, said Eddy Jeans, manager of school finance at the Department of Education and Early Development.
Parents are looking at their options, Jeans said, and deciding on schools outside their communities. In 1994, the only boarding school operating in Alaska was Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka, in southeast Alaska. Now full-time residential schooling is offered in Bethel in western Alaska and in Galena and Nenana in the Interior.
John and Sharon Agwiak decided their daughter Arielle could better prepare for college in Nenana than at the 57-student high school in their hometown of Mountain Village.
"It's just the idea of getting her exposed to other things like . . . the arts, taking band -- and getting her exposed to being away from home and somewhat of city life," John Agwiak said.
But unlike Mount Edgecumbe, the newer boarding schools have no commitment from the state to pay the cost of feeding and housing students.
In Nenana, at least, that is becoming a serious problem. Superintendent Ken Eggleston said the Nenana Student Living Center will have to slash enrollment and raise student fees next year.
State Rep. John Coghill (R) had proposed a pilot program to give the new schools a $472 per student stipend, plus reimbursement for one round trip per year between a student's home and the school.
That would have cost the state about $1 million a year, but it died in the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Gary Wilken (R) said one problem was that the state has no clear policy on the role of boarding schools in the state educational system.
Most boarding schools in Alaska closed after settlement of a rural education lawsuit in the 1970s led to construction of high schools in most villages. Many of the residential schools of that era had a reputation for alcohol abuse, violence and attempted suicides.
School officials said the new programs are emerging because parents are looking for options besides their local schools.
"It's not anything like what the boarding schools used to be," said Ralph Lindquist, dean of students at the Nenana school. "I think we're giving a lot of kids and parents an alternative to something they're not satisfied with."
Lindquist said students are typically two to three years behind academically when they arrive at Nenana, but they usually catch up within a semester or two.
Because the boarding schools are bigger, they can hire specialist teachers for each subject, rather than having one or two people teach every class, he said.
"What we have found is, number one, if we have high expectations and, number two, if we equip them for success, we get good results," Lindquist said.
At Project Education Residential School in Galena, Principal Harry White said students making C's or below are required to see a school-provided tutor.
But not everyone is happy about the boarding school trend.
Christopher Simon, superintendent of the Yukon-Koyukuk School District, said he worries that the schools rob children of important years with their parents. He also sees the newcomer Nenana and Galena schools as ways to spur local economies to the detriment of surrounding villages.
The Nenana, Galena and Mount Edgecumbe programs draw 15-20 students a year from his district, Simon said. The schools can be selective because they receive at least twice as many applications as they can accept.
"They tend to take the best students because of their entry requirements," Simon said. "And whoever's not stays at the site with us."