Alaska Native students make up nearly one-quarter of the student body in the state, but only five percent of teachers are Alaska Native. And new research from UAA shows despite years of effort, it’s been difficult to get more Native educators into Alaska Schools. In the next installment of our “Being Young in rural Alaska” series, from the producers of Kids These Days, Sarah Gonzales takes a closer look at the problem.
[Ambient classroom noise, students talking and laughing.]
SARAH GONZALES: It’s a Friday at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Ten students are wrapping up today’s class, getting ready to start the weekend. Half are undergraduates and half are graduate-level students … all of them are Alaska Native. They come from Metlaketla, Craig, Hoonah, Juneau and Anchorage and they are each receiving a scholarship from the School of Education.
[Ronalda Cadiente-Brown] “My name is Ronalda Cadiente-Brown and I am the director of the PITAAS program which has been around since 2000. PITAAS is an acronym and it stands for Preparing Indigineous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska’s Schools.”
SG: Cadiente-Browne says that the program has graduated 64 students of Alaska Native heritage since it began. Nemasia Moala is from Juneau and plans to teach Tlingit and English in Juneau after she graduates.
[Moalla] “When I was a kid I didn’t have a whole lot of native educators but the few I did have were really engaged and made me feel comfortable in my own skin.”
SG: That’s one reason to train more Native educators; another is to keep teachers in rural communities. Teacher turnover rates in rural Alaska are twice as high as in urban areas – with some districts, like Yukon Flats north of Fairbanks, losing one third of their teachers each year. Diane Hirshberg, director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research:
[Hirshberg] “We lose educators who understand the communities in which they are teaching. Given that unfortunate fact that most of our rural educators are coming from outside, there is a very steep learning curve for them to understand cultures and communities that are very different from the places that they come from. When they leave, the community has the burden of trying to educate yet another teacher so that they can be effective working with their children. It’s a huge strain on both the educators and on the community that’s trying to work with them.”
SG: Research shows that high turnover rates are directly related to low levels of student achievement. One way to decrease turnover is to train local teachers – studies show these teachers tend to stay put. Jasper Nelson from the Juneau teacher training program plans to teach in his hometown of Craig when he graduates:
[Nelson] “I only had one Alaska native teacher…and he was my favorite teacher. And he was the only one who’d see you at the store and say hi. He was just more used to living in a small town. I paid attention to him because he paid attention to me.”
SG: Nelson says like many of his fellow Alaska Native students he wasn’t encouraged to pursue higher education. Program director Cadiente-Brown says that’s not unusual:
[Cadiente-Brown] “It’s very rare to be mentored into the field, it’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality, a long-term reality.”
SG:There are efforts to counter that “long-term reality”; a collaborative effort called Future Educators of Alaska begins mentoring Alaska Native youth who may be interested in teaching. Middle and high school participants help in classrooms, attend a state-wide conference, and meet with a “mentor teacher” in their community. In saint Mary’s on the Lower Yukon River, mentor teacher Theresa Paukan focuses on public speaking:
[Pauken] “I grew up here and I was so afraid to speak in public even in my little group of 8 kids in high school and as a teacher I try to bring that out in the kids and I know that it’s really important.”
SG: Another hurdle is the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires secondary teachers to be highly qualified in every subject they teach. In small schools, that could be several subjects. In Barrow, Ilisagvik College offers a 2-year Associates degree to students. The Teachers for the Arctic program began as an effort to increase the number of Inupiaq educators in the North Slope Borough School District. Director Martha Stackhouse:
[Stackhouse] “We’re still a very strong subsistence-based culture. We’re whalers. They can identify with that so easily, so much more than somebody from Kansas coming in and not knowing our culture and trying to integrate it into classrooms. Our people they have this already, it’s already ingrained in them.”
SG: Stackhouse says when she began teaching in Barrow in the 1980’s, it was hard for the Inupiaq community to accept that she could do a good job as an Alaska Native teacher. Acceptance of Native teachers may have come a long way since then; now the challenge is to find more of them.
This reporting series is a production of the Content Producers Guild and is made possible through funding from the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Initiative for Community Engagement program. For more photos and information please visit KidsTheseDays.org.