Native students need schools that acknowledge culture

Shirley Tuzroyluke

If you look back through the history of Alaska Natives in the state's education system, you will find that culture and language were systematically removed from children in the classrooms, in well-intentioned attempts to prepare them for life in Western society.

Today, Alaska Native student performance clearly reflects the cumulative effects of those cultural disconnects. What is missing in the classroom is the wealth of knowledge embedded in the history, languages and cultures of Alaska Native students. What is missing has the power to make education relevant and promote better achievement.

Look at the American Indian and Alaska Native students we're pushing out of our schools, and the truth is alarming. Our students are leaving because they cannot relate to the classroom content. Their classroom instruction isn't relevant to their day-to-day lives. It's clear that this educational system still has not learned the teaching strategies that work best with Alaska Native students.

But other options exist. In Juneau, we have an example of success. At the Yakoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School, the small student body receives individualized support from staff and has a role model in their Alaska Native principal, Ronalda Cadiente. Students are organized into small communities, and instruction is based in culture. Students benefit from flexible school schedules that accommodate work and family commitments. The school environment fosters success by working within the family and community constraints that too often hinder progress. More than a third of the school's largely Alaska Native student body receive a diploma each year.

That record is important, because a closer look at Alaska's dropout rates reveals frightening facts.

Alaska Native students account for only a quarter of the total enrollment in the state's public schools, grades 7 to 12, and yet they make up nearly 40 percent of all Alaska dropouts. Twelve percent of Native Alaskans are unemployed compared with only 4 percent of their white counterparts. Students who failed to graduate with their peers in 2007, many of whom are Alaska Native students, will cost the state more than $1.1 billion in lost wages over their lifetime. By and large our neighborhood schools are not serving American Indian and Alaska Native students academically or culturally. We must demand policy changes that prepare schools to support and nurture tomorrow's leaders.

In Anchorage, the confusing data categories for Alaska Native students cloud the stark reality of the dismal graduation rates that afflict our students. Accurate and dependable information is particularly essential to close the achievement gaps in Native student performance.

The good news is that we have opportunities on the state and the federal level to address these challenges and provide every student with a high quality education. Successful models can be found in our own backyard and in other states.

An example is in Montana, where a new law requires that Native culture be incorporated into all curricula. Imagine the possibilities in Alaska, which is exactly what I hope my colleagues will do when we draft a statewide education plan this month.

And when the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee returns to Washington, D.C., after its field hearing in Anchorage, I hope that they leave with a clear understanding of ways the federal government can help our young people succeed. I hope they understand that a stronger No Child Left Behind Act is the only vehicle for change. I hope that everyone remembers that for Alaska Native students to succeed in college and in the modern work force, our languages and culture must be woven into the fabric of our educational system.

Shirley Tuzroyluke is president of the Alaska Native Education Association and currently serves on the board of the National Indian Education Association.