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Cultural Education in Alaska

Helping Alaska Native students find the path to success


Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s fabrication laboratory is a unique educational space that challenges youth to connect to their full STEM potential. Created in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Fab Lab is a digital fabrication resource center where students use high-tech design programs, industrial-grade manufacturing machines, and electronic and programming tools to develop new solutions to practical problems that transform ideas into reality.

Image courtesy of Cook Inlet Tribal Council

Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe High School, which has a high enrollment of Alaska Native students, is one of the top educational facilities in the nation. It has a 90 percent minority enrollment, 79 percent of whom are Alaska Native students with a graduation rate of 98 percent. Yet, Alaska Native student graduation rates in other schools across the state are by far disproportionately worse than nearly all other student categories.

As a comparison, according to the 2015-2016 Alaska State Report Card to the Public, the only groups that performed worse were students with disabilities (53.9 percent) and English learners (54.7 percent). The difference between the best performing student and Alaska Native students is as much as 16 percent.

Professor of Education Policy Dr. Diane Hirshberg from the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage explains that there has been a consistent problem attracting and retaining teachers who possess the tools to succeed with rural and Alaska Native students.

In 2010, Alaska adopted the four-year cohort graduation rate method required by the US Department of Education. Alaska high school students are assigned a cohort year based on when they first enter ninth grade. The assumption is that students are expected to graduate in four years.

“Statewide, the four-year high school graduation rate for all students in 2015-2016 was 76.1 percent,” Hirshberg says. “This was lower for students who are Alaska Native or American Indian (64.1 percent), African American (74.4 percent), or economically disadvantaged (68.4 percent). Dropout rates reflect similar inequality; the statewide dropout rate for grades 7-12 was 3.9 percent, but for Alaska Native/American Indian students it was 6.7 percent and 4.5 percent for African American students.”

Low graduation rates for Alaska Native students is not a new issue; it has been an ongoing challenge for educators and policy makers for decades. The issues concerning Alaska Native student success are known elements. Dropout rates are higher for Alaska Native students, and more often than not, male Alaska Native students.

“While the student population in rural Alaska is primarily indigenous, the educators in rural schools are overwhelmingly non-Native,” Hirshberg says. “Fewer than 5 percent of certificated teachers are indigenous, and fewer yet are administrators. Most of the educators are also from outside Alaska; between 2008 and 2012 the University of Alaska prepared fewer than 15 percent of the teachers hired by districts each year.”

Another longstanding issue is the manner in which Western education was introduced to the Alaska Native population. The experiences of previous generations of Alaska Native people were fraught with social and political adversity. There is a need to better understand the impact of intergenerational trauma associated with Alaska Native students, their families, and communities.

“Many rural villages in Alaska struggle with social problems that are a legacy of the colonial history of Alaska,” Hirshberg says. “These problems include low school achievement, high dropout rates, and some of the highest sexual assault and suicide rates in the nation.”

Hirshberg is quick to point out that students are fully capable of learning. The success of students at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka proves Hirshberg’s point with its 98 percent graduation rate. She suggests that rather than looking at how students fail to succeed, what actually needs to be examined are the reasons why schools fail to succeed.

Research shows that early childhood education programs must address early childhood trauma and incorporate culturally-responsive programs to help students succeed later in life, according to Hirshberg. There is also considerable research that demonstrates the effectiveness of using culturally-based teaching resources and methods to improve academic achievement for indigenous students.


Educational Success through Cultural Orientation

Rural Alaskan students tend to struggle with educators who are newly-graduated and from outside of Alaska—because teachers from the Lower 48 often are not prepared for the different and diverse cultures in Alaska.

There are efforts to improve teacher preparedness and reduce turnover rates in Alaska in remote school districts. Part of the solution is cultural orientation. There are programs available throughout Alaska designed to educate teachers who are unfamiliar with Alaska and its diverse cultures.

In 2003, the Alaska Native nonprofit Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) co-founded the Tlingit Culture, Language, and Literacy (TCLL) program in the Juneau School District to increase academic performance of Alaska Native students. A 2013 study found that, during a ten-year span, TCLL students generally did better than or as well as their Alaska Native peers on standardized tests in reading and writing.

SHI—founded by Sealaska Corporation in 1980 to operate cultural programs—also sponsors cultural orientations for teachers and other educators in Juneau. Sealaska Corporation is one of thirteen ANCSA corporations; it represents 22,000 shareholders who are descendants of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska.

In 2012, 60 percent of the first group of ten students enrolled in the TCLL program graduated from high school. This is compared to the overall Alaska Native graduation rate in Juneau of 47 percent. The TCLL program proved so valuable that the school district assumed financial responsibility for it in the years following its inception.

Through these programs, educators are provided the tools they need to effectively teach people from other cultures. Dr. Rosita Kaaháni Worl, president of SHI, says, “Studies have shown that Native students do better academically when their culture is included in the class.” She continues, “It is critical that Native cultures are incorporated into public schools and that teachers have a general understanding of the cultures [they are teaching].”

SHI’s cultural orientation program offers fifty hours of training for as many as twenty participants. The program is available through a series of seminars in August, September, October, and November. Along with enriching each educator’s understanding of Alaska Native culture, the program pays a stipend to participants who complete all of the requirements. Program members also have the option to earn credits through the University of Alaska Southeast.

“The program is offered through an agreement signed in 2012 by SHI, the University of Alaska Southeast, and the Juneau School District to expand partnerships on education programs,” Worl says. “Sealaska Heritage sponsors cultural orientations for teachers in public schools and at the University of Alaska through a memorandum of agreement. Participants learn Native history, the Native world view, and even about Northwest Coast art.”

Attendees of the cultural orientation program are also required to take part in SHI’s three-day Culturally Responsive Education Conference in June. The program is also available to students from Outside who are able to trace their heritage to Alaska.


Retention and Inclusion

Another key to student success is recruitment and retention of Alaska Native teachers. The Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) is an example of a school that is increasing graduation and enrollment rates for Alaska Native students. A part of LKSD’s success can be attributed to local educators teaching area students. Alaska Native students who are taught by Alaska Native educators for an extended period of time report improved academic success as opposed to those who are taught by a series of new and non-Alaska teachers for a short time. Instituting culturally-responsive programs with Alaska Native teachers is also fundamental to distancing today’s student body from Alaska’s era of colonialism-based education. “The Lower Kuskokwim School District has spearheaded efforts to improve the academic success of Native students,” Director of Personnel and Student Services for LKSD Joshua Gill says. “This is accomplished through culturally-responsive education programs that are led by Alaska Native teachers. We see positive results. LKSD has the highest number of Alaska Native certified teachers in Alaska—an estimated 20 percent to 22 percent.”

In the late 1970s, LKSD founded programs to give Alaska Native teachers better access to secondary education with the goal of hiring and retaining greater numbers of Alaska Native educators. “One barrier to recruiting and retaining Alaska Native teachers has historically been the requirement that they leave their communities to obtain teaching certificates,” Gill says. “Programs available through LKSD allow students to receive their teaching certification without leaving home.”

The results are evident. Historically, LKSD has one of the lowest teacher turnover rates in Alaska.

“Compared to the rest of rural Alaska, LKSD has a 12 percent to 17 percent teacher turnover rate,” Gill says. “The rest of rural Alaska has an average that is closer to [a] 30 percent or 40 percent turnover rate.”

Educational programming through Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s (CITC) Youth Empowerment Services department focuses on STEM-based learning activities and a strong connection to cultural identity.

Image courtesy of Cook Inlet Tribal Council

Anchorage Partnerships

Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) is a long-time partner with the Anchorage School District (ASD), providing educational programs that support academics and culture.

CITC’s student education programs incorporate traditional knowledge and family involvement. In fact, CITC was recognized in 2016 by the White House Champions of Change for Making for innovation and educational improvements.

Champions of Change was created in 2014 by President Obama to provide students and business innovators with a means to improve access to newly-evolving technologies such as laser cutters, desktop machine tools, and 3D printers. The idea is to provide the next “makers” with educational opportunities that will help them become inventors and entrepreneurs.

There are several education programs offered by CITC including Transitions, Schoolyard, and Techno-Culture Camps.

The Transitions program is an ongoing partnership with ASD for Alaska Native and American Indian students that provides core academic classes and social support services. The program is offered within several ASD schools. “We know students learn best when they receive more individualized attention,” CITC Director of Youth Empowerment Services Renee Fredericks says. “CITC classes are limited to twenty students. All CITC classes involve Native culture in the curricula. This, in turn, helps students with a sense of belonging and impacts academic success.”

Schoolyard is an afterschool program for students between the ages of twelve and nineteen who are Alaska Native and American Indian. Schoolyard offers students opportunities to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields of study. These studies are often explored using Alaska Native cultural knowledge. For example, students build canoes—from small form to full-size.

“One of our main focuses is to keep kids in school and on track to graduating,” Fredericks says. “This is done by having students work on school work in after-school programs. There we have the opportunity to support them and talk about classes they are taking. We also offer culture-centered activities and an hour of studying time.” The students are only allowed to come to Schoolyard if they attended their school that day.

CITC’s Techno-Culture Camps support youth learning traditional skills. “Our Techno-Culture Camps happen in the summer,” says Fredericks. “They span elementary, middle, and high school-aged students. We do things like kayak camp where they learn about the cultures connected to the different kayaks in the state.”

Image courtesy of Cook Inlet Tribal Council

As part of CITC’s educational services, NYO Games Alaska is one of a handful of events—along with the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and the Arctic Winter Games—that feature cultural-based contests of indigenous peoples of northern latitudes.  

Students also work on projects such as drumming, dance, and fish smoking, along with developing STEM-centered educational and job skills. CITC’s education programs help to prepare students to find success in school and be better prepared for life. Between 2013 and 2016 graduation rates of Alaska Native students enrolled in the CITC programs increased 38 percent to 96 percent compared to a graduation rate of 58 percent for Alaska Native students who were not enrolled in CITC’s programs. Because CITC is an Alaska Native nonprofit that provides culturally relevant social services, it also offers assistance to students and their families if they are facing issues outside of school that impact students well-being and/or their ability to obtain an education.


Developing Culturally Relevant Curricula

While Sealaska, LKSD, and CITC provide much needed culturally-centered educational programs, there are still some students who don’t have access to culturally relevant curriculum or teaching practices in both rural and urban school districts. To address the need for more culturally sensitive curricula, the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)-Alaska in 2013 initiated the development of the Alaskan Inuit Education Improvement Strategy. This was largely in response to the Nuuk Declaration, passed in 2011 by the Arctic Council which represents the eight Arctic states.

The Nuuk Declaration recognizes the importance of mutual efforts needed in the Arctic to support environmental protection, sustainable development, and the development of best practices across the circumpolar Arctic. In part, education is a key aspect to these goals.

ICC-Alaska, as a result, seeks to continue to develop and improve culturally appropriate curricula and to require the use of Alaska Native languages as a significant part of educational practices.

These many organizations have initiated and proposed compelling solutions to the problems that our current education programs aren’t addressing; but having a solution and implementing that solution require different levels of commitment and support. It is vital moving forward that solutions find social and political support. Through the successes that have been shown here and elsewhere, meaningful change can begin to take root, experts say. Parents and educators who continue to advocate for greater support and innovative education programs will have a lasting impact on student success.


This article first appeared in the September 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.  

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