Around the living room of the house that Sunni Hilts and her husband built themselves soon after moving to Seldovia in 1970, the display of framed family photos is bright and lively enough to rival the snowy wonderland out the window. Hilts points out their five children, one of whom was an Alaska Native; several grandchildren, including three biracial African Americans and three Ethiopians; and three smiling great-grandchildren.
“Once, somebody stopped us and said, ‘Are you a family or a university group?’ cause we’re in all colors and sizes,” she says, laughing.
At 77 years old, this month Hilts will retire from a 13-year career as the District 9 representative of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board. An educator since she started teaching nursery school in the 1970s and a former president of the Alaska Association of School Boards, Hilts spent much of her career advocating for the southern peninsula’s small schools and championing individualized education for the diverse students they serve. She says that’s because of her kids.
“I’ve seen in our own family how individualized education has to be,” she says.
Hilts’ adopted Native Alaskan daughter was born addicted to alcohol.
When Sunni and Rod adopted her in Kotzebue at age 5, she was only expected to live another year. Instead, she made it to 42, but struggled with the disease all her life.
Hilts says drawing attention to the high rates of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Alaska and the disease’s effects on children statewide has been one of her proudest accomplishments. Another has been advocating for better education for Alaska Natives. In particular, that’s meant greater incorporation of Alaska Native culture into the teaching at schools in the Native villages of the district.
Alaska Natives make up about a quarter of Seldovia’s nearly 300 people. Raising her daughter’s two Alaska Native sons and struggling to keep them in school, Hilts says she saw firsthand the importance of instilling a sense of cultural identity in young Native people after generations of public schooling that taught their parents and grandparents to be ashamed of their culture. Several years ago, she helped start a Native youth leadership conference for Kenai Peninsula students.
“I went to the second day of that conference and they had a mission statement that blew my socks off,” she says. “They were already leaders, they just didn’t have a place to have a voice. So that’s something that we’re seeing — when we empower them they have something to contribute and we need to listen.”
Statewide, that mentality seems to be gaining popularity. With Hilts’ input, the Alaska Association of School Boards this summer announced that its number one goal for the year is to “empower our boards to increase the academic success of Alaska Native Students and increase graduation rates of Alaska Native Students who are grounded in their cultural identity with the ability to successfully pursue their goals.”
Hilts credits the Suq’estun language immersion programs in Nanwalek and Port Graham with significantly increasing the local schools’ graduation rates from one or two students a year to nearly the entire class. She says it’s been thrilling to see similar growth in the region’s Russian Old Believer schools during her time on the school board.
Recognizing the individual backgrounds and needs of students and tailoring education to those needs is the key to keeping kids in Alaska, Hilts says. Those differences aren’t just cultural or health-related — educators also need to pay attention to students’ interests and provide vocational training as well as academic.
“We know that not everybody is going to go to college to become an accountant or a lawyer,” she says. Teachers need to find ways to inspire kids who aren’t academically inclined and provide soft skills to help them prepare for jobs.
“That’s what we need to look for: what interests the kids,” she says. “How do we help them learn so that they feel good about learning?”
The school district’s continued struggles with low funding mirror the state’s fiscal situation, Hilts says. But she’s frustrated by having to make cuts when there seem to be untapped funds available.
“Right now we’re talking about education and no money, and where you cut and where you cut and where you cut, and we have 50 billion dollars,” she says, referring to the Permanent Fund. “And I’m thinking that when we have money in the bank in our family and one of our kids needs help … we do what we can to help them, and we don’t say, ‘Sorry, this money is for the future.’ Because today is the future. And we have money.”
Still, she says schools also need to make sure they’re using the available resources wisely by raising expectations for students and focusing on critical thinking skills, not just memorization of facts.
“We should be doing the best job we can and we have not done the best job we could,” she says.
Serving on the school board has been no small commitment for Hilts — each month for the last 13 years she’s flown to Homer and driven the 75 miles up the highway to Soldotna. She’s only missed three meetings in 13 years for bad weather.
That commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Sunni has been an inspiration to all of us on the KPBSD School Board with her absolute dedication to the smaller schools she represents and her advocacy for children on the South Peninsula and throughout Alaska,” wrote Liz Downing, the board’s Homer representative, in an email. “Serving as president of the Association of Alaska of School Boards she made us proud and was always a respected voice when we spoke to legislators advocating for children. Tireless, graceful, articulate — a truly beautiful person.”
Joe Arness, the board’s current president, agrees.
“Her area is primarily small schools and she was very, very good at seeing to it that their position was represented. She always had a smile and an opinion irrespective of the topic under consideration, and I think we all valued her opinions very greatly,” he wrote.
Hilts says she’ll miss serving on the school board, but that retirement feels like less of an end and more of a beginning. Now she can devote herself entirely to the community she loves — where there’s lots to do but people are never too busy to stop and talk to a neighbor.
“It’s a very diverse town but when it matters we all come together. You don’t have to be alone in this town. There are people that care about everyone. And we live in such incredible beauty,” she says, gesturing to the snow-covered spruce trees outside the window.
In her new free time, Hilts says she’ll get back to playing guitar, carving soapstone and mixing essential oils into ointments for friends. She and her husband will finally have time to travel. But what she’s most looking forward to, she says, is spending time with her family.
On Monday, two of Hilts’ daughters drove up to Soldotna to surprise her at her last school board meeting.
“From the beginning she’s always said that what matters to her is that we make Alaska kids our first priority,” says daughter Laurel Hilts, who manages marketing for the Seldovia Village Tribe.
“It’s been a blessing and an honor to be behind the scenes and watch her,” adds Laurel’s sister, Robin Hoffmann, who is the food service manager at West Homer Elementary. “Just hearing the accolades that are given about my mother is a truly humbling thing, and it’s on a daily basis.”
Annie Rosenthal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.