Most teachers hired to work in remote Alaska Native villages are new to their careers and to the state. Few know much about the tribal cultures they encounter.
That only emphasizes the isolation for newcomers to a harsh landscape where roads are few. It's no wonder many quit after a year or two.
Aiming to turn that trend around, coordinators of a program that pairs rural Alaska schools with big-city counterparts have won a competitive federal grant totaling nearly $2 million to launch cultural immersion camps for incoming rural teachers.
The three-year effort is being developed through the Rose Urban Rural Exchange program, administered by the nonprofit Alaska Humanities Forum. The program, in its 11th year, oversees student exchanges between rural and urban schools as well as Alaska Native culture camps for urban educators.
The new component is being funded by the $1.92 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education and represents a missing piece of the exchange program by introducing new educators to a way of life quite foreign to their own experiences.
Another goal is to prepare teachers for communities that might have a historical distrust of outsiders dating back to early boarding schools where western education was imposed and indigenous culture was discouraged, said Humanities Forum president Greg Kimura.
"That's really something that is a larger issue that is at the core of this too," he said. "The program is trying to give these teachers the resources where they can help do a bit of rehabilitation work, but also so they can be proactive in being the best teachers that they can be and that they dream of being."
At some point, the teachers also will be paired with a master-teacher through a University of Alaska mentor project to learn to apply what they've learned into classroom activities and lesson plans.
Program director Laurie Evans-Dinneen said helping teachers understand the traditional cultures of villages where they work can result in closer ties with students and a better understanding of communication styles and learning styles of their charges.
"That relationship is key to student success," Evans-Dinneen said.
The annual turnover rate in rural Alaska schools can be as high as 35 percent, compared to urban rates as low as 5 percent, said Mike Dunleavy, director of Alaska Teacher Placement, a statewide clearing house for educators and school districts.
Beside geographic isolation, other factors for the high turnover rate in rural schools include the soaring cost of living expenses and lower test scores often found in rural areas, intensifying pressure on educators to improve student performance.
"There are a lot of factors against longevity out there," Dunleavy said.
Cultural differences can add to the challenge. Alaska Natives living a subsistence lifestyle might think it's more important for a student to go hunting and put food on the family's table or to attend the funeral of an elder in another village than to skip such crucial events for a day in school.
Dunleavy believes the new cultural immersion endeavor can have a positive impact on rural teacher retention.
"It'll introduce new teachers to cultures and values, getting folks to understand that different values aren't wrong," he said. "Once they understand, they can relate to the folks they're trying to teach."
The first cultural immersion camps will be held next summer for 30 teachers beginning jobs with the Lower Kuskokwim and Northwest Arctic Borough school districts and involves district officials and other partners. Organizers aren't sure where the weeklong camps will be held, but say there will be one camp in a village or subsistence camp in each of the two districts. The camps will be preceded by a three-day cultural orientation for the educators.
Funding is uncertain beyond the three years. But Kimura is hoping the camps become a permanent fixture offered to rural school districts throughout the state to help incoming teachers deal with the "stresses and strains" of adapting to their new settings.
"We want to better prepare them to understand the communities in which they will be -- not just teaching -- but real community leaders," he said.
By RACHEL D'ORO