Cutting video

Conor Pearson and Spencer Sullivan work on splicing clips for an introduction to a documentary on the 1929 Irene and Nettie Jones case, which determined Alaska schools shouldn't be segregated on Jan. 20 in Chad Frey's eighth grade class at Schoenbar Middle School. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

The history of Irene Jones is being shared through the first student-produced documentary of her story.

A small class of eighth-graders at Schoenbar Middle School worked during the second quarter of the school year to create a documentary about young Jones' fight to attend a public school in 1920s Ketchikan.

In the project kickstarted by the Ketchikan School District's cultural coordinator Teresa Varnell; Irene Jones’ daughter, Judy Needham; Ahl’lidaaw Terri  Burrs;  and SMS history and filmmaking teacher Chad Frey, the students have been learning about how, in 1929, 12-year-old Irene Jones was enrolled in Ketchikan's Main School before being told by the district's then-superintendent that she must attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs' established school for Alaska Native and mixed-race children.

According to a report from the National Archives, Jones, the daughter of Paul and Nettie Jones, began attending classes at Main School on Sept. 3, 1929, but was sent home after two days of school due to being "of Indian descent."

Just a week after Jones first attempted to attend class at Main School, her parents filed a lawsuit against the Ketchikan School Board.

The Jones family attorney argued that the decision was in violation of Irene Jones' 14th amendment rights.

"She had all the qualifications of children who are entitled to admission and are admitted to the public school under Alaskan law," according to a report from the National Archives.

In November that same year, a federal judge ruled in Jones' favor and she continued to attend the public school.

Teresa Varnell, speaking recently to the Daily News, explained why she thought the story was important to Ketchikan's history more than 80 after the lawsuit was settled.

"As I've traveled throughout the district in my current position, I realized that there were a lot of people who didn't have any knowledge or (had) very little knowledge of the Nettie and Irene Jones story, so I thought, 'Why not see what we can do to create a higher awareness?'" said Varnell.

Varnell, Needham, and Burrs collaborated to create a presentation and curriculum based around the story.

"Early on I asked (Needham), 'Would you mind if I developed a curriculum about this, some kind of a unit?'" Varnell recalled. "And she said absolutely (not), so we just started working together."

To bring the story into a local classroom, Varnell approached Chad Frey, a Schoenbar history and film making teacher.

Frey took to the idea, and brought it into his eighth-grade history class.

Frey told the Daily News in a separate interview that he was approached with the idea by Varnell during a professional development day at the beginning of the school year.

"I was just struck by the history of it," Frey said. "I thought it was something my students can really latch on to."

Frey said that the documentary is about "talking about different cultures, different histories, (and) different backgrounds."

"And being able to come together and say, 'Now we're all able to go to school together.' ... It's a bad spot in our local history, but something that needs to be taught," said Frey.

Varnell said that the Schoenbar classroom is serving as a "pilot program" in the Ketchikan School District.

The overall goal of the project, according to Varnell, is to help learners become future educators, while sharing the Jones family's important history and teaching students about discrimination.

"The idea was one of the initiatives this year as a cultural coordinator, who was to trying to support our staff in creating our learners as teachers, and this is one of a few projects that I've been working on and it's the one that's really standing out right now," Varnell said.

Varnell described Irene Jones' story as "close to home, and summarized what she believed to be the most important aspect of the assignment.

She said, "I think it's very important for not just our students, but our faculty, to have a strong understanding of the history of the land that we're on, to understand the history of the participation, the relationship that we've had as indigenous people with the school district, how the past, the present and the future continue to play a significant role in where we land as indigenous people and also how we develop relationships outside of just being indigenous people, how we create relationships in the larger community."

Throughout the course of the documentary's creation, Varnell visited Frey's eighth-grade classroom several times.

Judy Needham also visited the class and gave a PowerPoint presentation about her mother's story. Via Zoom, Terri Burrs also shared a peace song with the class.

"There wasn't one student who had ever heard of the (Nettie and Irene Jones) story," Varnell recalled.

The students were eager for the challenge of creating a documentary to share the Jones story, Frey and Varnell agreed.

"I think it's been pretty profound," said Varnell. "It's been interesting because at that (grade) level, normally when I'm in the classroom, students are pretty quiet when it comes to asking questions and expressing their inquiries or their interests, but that has not been my experience with this group."

"Every single time after (the first visit), hands are up in the air, people want to know information, they want to share information," Varnell continued. "It's been for me, as an observer, ... it's been really profound to just watch and experience the level of interest and inquiry, and also the level of acquisition that these students really have learned so much."

As for the project itself, Varnell said it's multi-faceted.

"They're (students) also learning how to navigate the technology piece, and so I imagine, in my perspective and my view, it was probably a little bit intimidating," Varnell commented. "It continues to (be) intimidating, because you're still learning new content and then at the same time, you're also learning how to navigate this technology system to put something comprehensive together."

Frey's class was in the final stages of editing the documentary — which has about 60 individual shots — in late January.

"It's cool that the students, their attitude toward this project, is just really, really positive," said Frey, talking to the Daily News during a recent morning class as he helped students edit the video.

Frey's students used the "We Video" platform to create the documentary.

The project includes pictures from the Tongass Historical Museum and other archival sources, new pictures, short clips of the students and voiceover narration by the class.

"I think they're responding well to it," Frey said. "The students have latched on to the story."

The group worked on the project for the duration of the second quarter of the school year.

"And they've put in countless hours of editing and talking with each other. ... I think they're been doing a fantastic job," Frey said about the class.

The students also gave each other "critical feedback" as they divide into groups to cover different portions of the documentary in groups of two or three.

These portions include a history of Ketchikan, an overview of the Jones' lawsuit, and the history of the treatment of Alaska Native students in Ketchikan.

"It's always tough (to hear feedback)," Frey commented. "But that's all part of the process. No one can get offended, we're always looking to get better."

The Daily News also spoke to some of the students in Frey's class as they worked on editing their sections of the film.

Eighth-graders Kaitlyn Anderson, Bailey Albrant and Skye Deal were working as a group.

"We're kind of working on what we see today in the project, like, the effects that that (case) had on things today," Anderson said.

"And, like, what happened after it went down and stuff," Albrant added.

All three girls said that they were unfamiliar with the story of the Jones family before starting on the project.

"We get to have Native teachers at our schools and Native friends," said Deal about what she had learned.

Gavin Hall and Corrine Johnson were working on introducing the premise of the film and describing Schoenbar Middle School.

Hall shared that one of the hardest parts of the project was dealing with the historic photos.

"We have limited photos, because they're older and the buildings aren't here anymore, so you can just take pictures of what they look like now and then," he said.

Instead, "we kind of just got older photos and compared them to the newer schools and the other buildings in their place," according to Hall.

Frey and Varnell hope to make the finished film available on the Ketchikan School District and SMS webpages, as well as in the Southeast Discovery Center and Tongass Historical Museum.