WHEN students in the Mount Edgecumbe High School entrepreneurship class are not donning bright yellow industrial aprons to clean salmon for smoking, they are writing letters to contacts in China and Japan arranging for export of their product. The students' goal is not learning how to make money, but how to conduct business with Alaska's Pacific Rim neighbors.
Edgecumbe, a 160-student state boarding school in southeast Alaska, is devoted to preparing rural Alaskans for the United States' expansive trade with the Orient.
The student body is as unusual as the school. By far most of the students are Alaska natives. Eighty-five percent of the enrollment is from rural Alaska with its isolated villages, many accessible only by air or water. Some of these communities have only one general store, one telephone, and one high school student.
More than one-third of Edgecumbe's students are engaged in an intensive Pacific Rim program. But every student is required to take one Pacific Rim culture class and one year of Japanese or Mandarin Chinese, the only foreign languages taught at the school. Edgecumbe has begun purchasing computer programs that use Japanese characters, even though such programs are not readily available for high schools.
About the languages, ``Most students are hesitant, but once they take one, they want to continue,'' says Larrae Rocheleau, school superintendent. Science, social studies, and even math teachers weave Pacific Rim relevance into their lessons.
Asking whether such a specialized school can provide the basics puts Mr. Rocheleau on the defensive.
``If you have social studies and math, why can't you direct [them] to Pacific Rim material and have a cross-cultural approach?'' he says. ``We are not saying we will teach less math.
``Other programs have an emphasis on European culture. As long as you are going to have one or the other, why not have Pacific Rim?''
``These classes are no harder than the regular, traditional classes I had back home,'' comments Arland Anderson, a junior from Trapper Creek, who plans for a career involving travel.
Because students are required to take seven academic periods per day, subjects like band, art, and driver's education are taught after school and on weekends. Students have met the challenge head on, but the program has required resourcefulness from the staff, stresses Marilyn Knapp, the resources coordinator for the Pacific Rim material.
Because Rocheleau could not find many teachers with a Pacific Rim background, he settled for good instructors who expressed willingness to create a program.
But Ray Stein, who holds a master's degree in Chinese and Asian studies, was a natural for Edgecumbe. Fluent in four languages, he lived overseas for seven years, starting with a Peace Corps stint in Fiji and moving on to China, Japan, Thailand, and Australia. Mr. Stein says that even with his experience he must improvise to develop studies appropriate for high school students.
``I have to draw everything from every different place,'' he says. ``I have no one source I can use.''
Locating the curriculum for the school involved an international search, Mrs. Knapp says. For example, the school's best Japanese book came from Australia.
Edgecumbe has prepared a bibliography of materials that have been evaluated in the classroom, which Knapp sends to other schools on request. Most inquiries come from schools on the West Coast.
Mount Edgecumbe High School had no choice but to be different. When the federal government turned the former Bureau of Indian Affairs school over to the state in 1985 after a two-year closure, rural educators feared they might lose bush Alaska's best students. In the political shoving match that followed, Edgecumbe supporters scaled down the size of the school and developed the Pacific Rim alternative. Now Edgecumbe has a budget of some $2.3 million.
This year Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper urged the introduction of Pacific Rim classes in all Alaskan schools.
Rocheleau expects most traditional high schools to meet resistance if they try to make such a change, and he notes that the back-to-basics trend adds to the difficulty of selling the Pacific Rim concept to a community or school board.
The program is not for everyone, Rocheleau admits.
``You have to be a risk-taker to engage in a program of this sort. The main reason many schools don't is fear of the unknown....
``I would hope 20 years from now that Mount Edgecumbe kids will be running most of Alaska's international trade in Asia.''
The Chinese have a saying, ``The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.''