The Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, in Anchorage, has a new and bigger home – just in time for the new school year.
The new building was sorely needed says school Principal Patsy Shaha. She says the old location was simply bursting at the seams.
“We were maxed out at 210 over there,” Shaha said. “We couldn’t fit any more students; it just wouldn’t fit.”
The school started in 2007 and was housed at an old furniture store on Muldoon.
It didn’t have a its own parking lot, a playground or a gym. Students exercised in a storage room with eight foot ceilings. The new school has a parking lot a playground and a gym, plus more classrooms.
The new building is sandwiched between the neighborhoods of Airport Heights and Mountain View. It’s a rambling 1960s era former public school on Bragaw that was most recently occupied by Pacific Northern Academy, a private school. In 2009 the charter school added preschool. They added 7th grade in 2011. This year they added 8th grade. They use a district approved curriculum but they supplement with lessons on Native culture and language.
“We begin everyday with a community gathering and all the students and staff are in the same room and every single day, there’s parents who stay also, and we say the pledge,” Shaha said, explaining the start to a typical day. “We say the pledge in Yup’ik. And on Monday we have a guest elder who speaks to the children about whatever they want to share.”
Each year students learn about a different Alaska Native cultural group. They study two hours of Yup’ik a day. Regular lessons are supplemented with berry picking and ice fishing field trips – and the occasional seal-skinning.
“Last year one of our teachers, her family harvested a seal; and so she brought in the seal and she laid out this cardboard on the ground and she took her ulu and all the students took turns watching as she skinned it, butchered it,” Shaha said. “She talked to them about when she was a little girl and her grandma taught her in the same thing, and she talked about how you use each individual part.”
With less than two weeks until school starts, the building is undergoing a major overhaul. Shaha walks me down a long cinder block-walled hallway where workers are rolling over Crayola colored paint with earth tones of blue and brown.
Shaha says that when they started the school the building was the least of their worries. Alaska Native achievement was about half that of other students and the school was started, in part, to address that.
“The first year of the school the achievement scores for the kids was 44 percent, average,” Shaha said. “And last year it was 76, and it just keep rising.”
So that means that less than half were passing standardized tests. Now more than three quarters are.
In general, the number hovers around 50 percent in Anchorage and across the country.
Shaha says they’re getting those results through excellent curriculum and excellent teachers. Danielle Riha teachers 5th grade at the school.
Today she’s calling parents to remind them to register.
“I had to learn about their culture in order to teach them through their traditional ways of knowing. and once I did that they loved learning,” Riha said. “And that’s what I find here too is that once they’re connected to culture – even if they’re not Alaska Native, just having cultural values that are universal, they feel a sense of pride and they feel like they’re a part of something and they enjoy learning.”
The school focuses on community – and building relationships with families.
“I am registering five kids today; sixth grade, third grade, second grade, first grade and kindergarten,” Tabytha Gardner said, sitting at a table near the main office with her kids filling out paperwork.
Gardener says she chose to enroll her kids in the school for several reasons, but the main one is that she wants them to learn about their Alutiiq Heritage, along with reading, writing and arithmetic. And she says, she also likes the sense of community at the school.
“Going to the other schools it’s like you get a number basically,” Gardner said. “And maybe a phone call once in a while, or an automated phone call – you don’t talk to real people.”
Gardener says, because of that, she’ll send her sixth child to the school too, just as soon as he’s old enough. Shaha says it’s that sense of community that seems to be filling up the school.
“We moved into this building, it’s way bigger than the other building, but we’ve already run out of space,” Shaha said.
Shaha says the school has extended their lottery. They now have room for around 100 more students than last year, and slots are going fast. You don’t have to be Alaska Native to attend.