Barrow's Ilisagvik College announced last week that it is partnering with the Avant-Garde Learning Alliance of Anchorage on a feasibility study exploring the potential for a four-year degree program at Ilisagvik.
The two-year tribal college is specifically looking at the potential of an early childhood education/elementary education Bachelor's degree that focuses on creating indigenous educators.
"We can't offer a four-year degree in everything," said Ilisagvik Interim President Pearl Brower. "But there are a few specific areas that we know we really need support and local Native people in those professions. And teaching is one of those."
The study, which will take an estimated six months to complete, will lay out the hard facts of what it will take to make such a program a reality.
The requirements for accreditation and the budget needed to implement a four-year degree program are just a few of the major elements the Alliance will be looking at during its study.
The money for the study itself is coming from Shell Oil and ASRC.
"Both of those entities are very supportive of increasing the number of Alaska Native teachers," said Dr. Shirley Holloway, codirector and founder of the Alliance.
This partnership perfectly fits the goals at the heart of the Alliance, Holloway said, which focus on professional development of educational resources in rural communities.
"It's really going to make it possible for us to advance our mission and goals incredibly faster than we've ever dreamed," Holloway said. "Ilisagvik of course has many opportunities to develop Alaska Native people in a variety of ways. But there has always been a dream of increasing the number of Alaska Native teachers not only for the North Slope but across Alaska."
The overarching goal of this combined effort aims to build a workforce of certified, Native Alaska teachers who can use their cultural background and awareness of traditional learning to teach younger generations. By supporting a learning system created and run by Alaska Native people, Ilisagvik and the Alliance seek strong and successful Bush education.
"For many of our children, traditional learning methods work better than the classic western ones taught at most colleges and universities," Brower said. "Our goal is to give our students the best chance possible to succeed and we believe that can be accomplished by giving them teachers who understand their language, their culture and their life."
The results of this study will give Ilisagvik the tools it needs to make a well-informed decision about the potential program, Brower said. Should such an expansion be within grasp, she said, it has the potential to not only add a powerful resource to North Slope communities but could set a larger example.
"The ability to offer a four-year degree program in a rural community led by a rural college would be incredibly important," Brower said. "I believe in the state, but also in the nation. I think it would be incredibly beneficial for rural Alaska to have an opportunity for individuals who are interested in teaching rural Alaska students, indigenous Alaska students, (and) I think it would open up a lot of opportunity to get their education in a setting that supports where they come from and what they want to do."
The Alliance's role in the program will not stop at the study, should its results show Ilisagvik can move forward. The group's other endeavors — such as teacher workshops, Praxis One exam practice, and other outreach programs — will also serve to support Ilisagvik's next steps.
"I think there are going to be some challenges," Holloway said. "We'll have to meet the requirements for teacher preparation programs that the state has, and we'll also have to pass the scrutiny of the post secondary commission and national accreditation. We're going to have some hoops to jump through but we're very hopeful that we'll have the support to do that."
This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.