Seventy percent of Alaska's schoolteachers come from out of state. They arrive from Minnesota or California or Michigan, and struggle to settle into jobs in village Alaska.
That constant churn is hard. Short-term teachers rarely feel part of a village, and the village never fully embraces them. Students can pay for the disconnect; rural Alaska schools post some of the lowest achievement scores in the state.
It's not hard to imagine the benefits of teachers rising right out of the villages, where they know, live and value local ways. A program to help that happen is under way in Chevak, a Cup'ik community of 1,000 residents, including 250 schoolchildren, along the Kashunak River in Western Alaska. A cohort of more than a dozen Chevak teacher aides are now on the path to becoming fully credentialed classroom teachers.
Because the community speaks a dialect of Central Yup'ik, called Cup'ik (pronounced Chew-pick), it was able to create the one-school Kashunmiut School District with its own local school board.
Elders in the village, John Pingayak, David Boyscout and others, had a vision for the school they wanted. It would be "like two rivers flowing together, one Western and one Cup'ik." Neither would dominate, and together they would best prepare their children to thrive in a fast-changing world while remaining rooted in their own culture.
For years, the community has cultivated this dream, a K-12 Cup'ik language immersion school. They have succeeded through the third grade, but teacher turnover takes a toll here too. Plus, new teachers don't arrive speaking Cup'ik. How could they ever fulfill the goal of a Cup'ik immersion K-12?
About three years ago, a superintendent, Les Kramer, recognized the stability and cultural strength represented by the teacher aides. They already speak Cup'ik. They have their own families deeply rooted in the community and its culture. Why couldn't they become the school's fully credentialed teachers?
Kramer called UAA's College of Education and asked how it could happen. The answer wasn't obvious, but together the college and the district began to explore the possibility. In 2010, a handful of education professors traveled to Chevak and sat in the school library listening to teacher aides describe their drive to become fully qualified teachers. Many of them had already worked 10-15 years at the school.
Three years later, eight of the cohort are poised to receive their Associate of Arts degree in December; many want to continue on for a bachelor's degree in elementary education.
The journey from then to now took place almost exclusively in Chevak, with education professors flying in for 10-day stints, followed by online learning as students settled into course work. Students were able to fit college classes around their school jobs and family obligations right in Chevak.
From the beginning, the school and the university shared a commitment to draw from Western education theory and practice and Cup'ik knowledge and sense of place. Exactly how to do that was an ongoing discovery, but Nancy Boxler, one of the liaisons to the cohort, says the process is transformative, both for the school and the university.
Irasema Ortega, an assistant professor of science education, can tell part of that story. Last summer, she headed to the village with colleague Cathy Coulter, an associate professor of elementary education, to spend a week with the school's teachers creating an elementary science curriculum that would include STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills.
The team writing the science curriculum was inspired by ways people in Chevak talked about nature's abundance and value. One lesson plan on building graphs incorporated subsistence. Students were assigned to calculate how many gallons of blueberries their extended family gathered and stored for winter. In the case of subsistence food, elders receive theirs first, so the curriculum committee built that into the equation too.
"Subsistence goes beyond just going to fish camp or collecting berries or moose hunting," Coulter said. "It is a way of living and taking care of each other."
The Anchorage professors say they will take ideas like this back to their elementary education classes at UAA to show how sense of place can be built into all curricula.
All of this takes money. One superintendent applied for temporary federal stimulus dollars to support the project. It also got a financial kick-start from Anchorage businessman Barney Gottstein, a previous longtime member of the state school board. While serving, he was won over by the vision of Tlingit educator Bill Demmert for how to teach Alaska Native children: Put an Alaska Native teacher in front of them. When Gottstein saw an opportunity to support that vision, he did.
Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.