Fairbanks summit addresses rural learning

Mary Beth Smetzer

FAIRBANKS -- School district superintendents, teachers, elders and others from the Interior region gathered to share concerns such as dropping enrollment, and ideas for improving schools last week at the 2012 Interior Education Summit hosted by the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Held at Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall, the summit drew a couple hundred educators, elders, tribal leaders and students from across Alaska.

Precipitous drops in student enrollment in small communities are worrisome.

Kerry Boyd, Yukon-Koyukuk School District superintendent, oversees nine river schools with the total enrollment of 302 students. The largest student body is in Huslia with 85 students; three schools have 12 students, and the rest average 25 to 30 students, she said.

There has been a huge drop in student numbers in Nulato, Boyd said, with families leaving who are "looking for economic resources."

Like urban high schools, outlying high schools also are challenged to keep students until graduation.

Boyd suggested strong career and technical education programs to build job skills, and driving lessons, so students can get jobs after graduation.

Some rural districts, such as Tanana City School District don't have enough Internet bandwidth, which can be costly, to take advantage of long-distance programs in addition to training teachers how to use it.

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Superintendent Pete Lewis said the state is looking into ways to digitize Alaska so every child will have access to digital education.

Rural districts also are looking into sending their high school students to regional schools for two week intensive cycles rather than full time, since homesickness can lead to dropping out.

Retired teacher Cora Maguire said teaching Native culture in schools and building a strong foundation is the answer to retaining students. Students have to feel proud and good about who they are, she emphasized.

Teaching culture, she said, encompasses Native language, spirituality, stories, dancing and singing, with elders and the whole community working together.

"Village people have power to change the curriculum to a Native curriculum, not a Western curriculum. That is not our way," Maguire said.

"Instead of talking about problems again and again, address the problems and get Native organizations involved to help change," she said.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner