Rural teachers struggle to make school meaningful to kids


Pressure from federal education initiatives has forced struggling schools across the U.S. to focus more and more on standardized test scores. But in rural Alaska, some teachers say, the focus on reading and math is alienating students. Educators in the St. Lawrence Island communities of Gambell and Savoonga tell a correspondent for The Atlantic they are frustrated that there isn't enough time left in a school day for lessons that might be more meaningful to rural students.

Math and reading teachers don't always find it most effective to teach straight from the textbook. With the help of Yupik elders, Jerry Lipka, an education professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has created a math program that incorporates Native culture. One lesson draws on the elders' expertise in preserving salmon. 

"We had elders build a fish rack," he said. "We videotaped it and talked with the elders and made one of our first math modules." The lesson covered concepts like perimeter, angles, area, and the relationships between the measures of a rectangle. Students who participated in the lesson scored much higher on a geometry test than their peers who were taught using a traditional curriculum.

But partly because of the demands of the [federal School Improvement Grant initiative], the Gambell and Savoonga schools have stripped their curriculum down to the bare necessities, with the time spent on reading and math doubled to two long blocks each day.

While it's true that some student test scores have improved on St. Lawrence Island, attendance and graduation rates are down, educators told The Atlantic. Also complicating the situation is the high teacher turnover rate.

Striking a culturally appropriate note in St. Lawrence schools might be easier for Native teachers. But although nearly every classroom includes a Yupik teacher's aide, all of the administrators and head teachers at both schools are white. Many were recruited from the Lower 48 and are new to the job and the culture; the teacher turnover rate has reached 50 percent in some years, according to administrators. But given the low rate of college attendance in the villages, finding locals equipped for the job is difficult.

Read much more at The Atlantic: In remote Alaska villages, teachers struggle to make school meaningful