Northwest Arctic Borough schools benefit from co-op program

Only eight years after the Shaktoolik girls basketball team marched all the way to the state championship game, the Lady Wolverines faced extinction because they didn't have enough players to field a team.

The Ambler Lady Bears won it all in 1990, yet they were in a similar situation last season because low enrollment threatened to keep the squad on the sidelines.

Thanks to the Cooperative School Program, however, both Class 1A teams were able stay in the game.

"It's a great program," said Jake Stoops, activities director for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District.

It was created years ago by the Alaska Schools Activities Association to provide opportunities for small schools that are so small they don't have enough students to field a team.

Last season, Ambler and Shaktoolik teamed with Shungnak in both boys and girls basketball, and mixed-6 volleyball. Without joining forces, none of them would have been able to participate in high school sports.

"Ambler has traditionally turned out outstanding athletes but is now down to fewer than 10 students in their high school," Stoops said. "Without the co-op option, they wouldn't have the numbers to field teams year in and year out.

"Kobuk doesn't have a gym at their school, so teaming with Shungnak to use their facility is a natural fit as well."

Schools from other regions have used the co-op program as well.

In Southwest Alaska, Newhalen and Liberty Home School combined forces in boys basketball. In Western Alaska, Brevig Mission and Teller teamed up in girls basketball, as did Aniak and Kalskag, two programs that combine for one state title and three second-place finishes.

"Every area wants to have a basketball team," said executive director Gary Matthews of ASAA, the state's governing body for high school sports. "Without that program they wouldn't be able to participate at all."

In the Northwest Arctic, some teams go to great lengths to play sports.

Take Kivalina and Deering, for example. They are separated by the Kotzebue Sound, some 100 air miles apart, yet they make it work.

"Deering is another site that has used the co-op to field teams in recent years but because of their location, they don't have a natural fit to consistently partner with," Stoops said. "Their most recent co-op came three years ago with Kivalina. But with no direct flights linking the communities, it was logistically very difficult to pair them up and extremely expensive."

Stoops admitted that the kids on co-op teams are at a major disadvantage compared to other schools in terms of practice time and travel, but he said it's all worth it.

"It's a small price to pay," he said. "Whenever possible, we try to bring them together the day before a game to practice. But usually the only time they are at full strength is when they play."

ASAA also makes provisions that eliminate any chance of an all-star team taking shape between two programs that are hungry for a title.

"It's for those schools that just don't have enough interested students to form a team," Matthews said.

That's why there is a list of rules, including one that requires both teams to be members of the same school district and the agreement must be approved by administrators and the superintendent.

The co-op program includes only team sports such as basketball, volleyball and football, and not individual sports like cross-country running, wrestling and track and field.

When the combined enrollments of all schools involved exceeds their classification cutoff levels, the co-op team shall compete in the next higher classification for the tournament qualifying purposes.

The bottom line, Matthews said, is to give students in rural villages a chance to play sports just like every other kid in Alaska.

"If kids are eligible to play, statistics show they usually do better in school and they usually stay in school," Matthews said. "They become better socialized and they end up becoming better citizens."

Article Published in the Arctic Sounder