It’s been 43 years since Wainwright resident Marlene Okakok first tried to complete her high school diploma. Now, at age 63, she is about to graduate.
Okakok is one of this year’s three graduates from Qarġi Academy, the only tribal school on Alaska’s North Slope. The academy provides access to education based in the Iñupiaq language and culture, and while the school is located in Wainwright, it serves students across the North Slope as well as tribal members of the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope who live in Anchorage.
And Qarġi Academy has plans to expand: Beginning next fall, the school — which currently teaches students from ninth to 12th grade — will serve students starting in sixth grade, and tribal leaders have even bigger aspirations to reach more residents in the years to come.
At Qarġi, three local teachers, or Ilisaqtitchiriit, share traditional knowledge, Iñupiaq values, culture, history and language with academy students. Students also receive instruction online from certified teachers at the virtual Edmentum EdOptions Academy in academic courses and personal academic support. Those teachers and Ilisaqtitchiriit work together to make sure the whole education model adheres to Iñupiaq culture.
“Our official language is Iñupiat. Everything we do has that base culture of Iñupiat,” said Mark Roseberry, director of education at Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the regional Alaska Native tribal government. “The whole feel of the school is culturally appropriate and relevant education that aligns with the community.”
For Okakok, the community-oriented nature of education in the academy was crucial for achieving her long-awaited goal. Born in Utqiaġvik, she grew up and studied in Wainwright, but moved to Illinois a month before graduating high school. When Okakok moved back to Wainwright nine months later, she couldn’t figure out how she could still receive her high school diploma.
“I tried and tried until I finally just gave up,” she said. Decades later, with help from Qarġi Academy teachers, Okakok was finally able to enroll and pass her U.S. history class this year and get all credits she needed. “Now I’m able to get my diploma through Qarġi. I am so excited!”
Inspired by that success, Okakok is now working toward her driver’s license. But most of all, she wants her story to motivate other students.
“I want to encourage those who don’t have their diplomas to get their diplomas because if I can do it at my age, they can do it as well,” she said. “And we will be there to help them.”
Besides graduating from the academy, Okakok is also one of the Ilisaqtitchiriit there. As a fluent Iñupiaq speaker, she was an ideal candidate to pass on traditional knowledge to students.
“I enjoy what I do,” she said. “Our language is slowly dying and we need to keep it. We need to pass down our language.”
Helping students who were left behind
Qarġi Academy — named after qarġi, the traditional meeting house for Iñupiat — originally opened as an Iñupiaq charter school back in 2020, with eight graduates in the first year. In October 2021, it became a tribal school.
The three students who are graduating on May 25 will be the academy’s first graduates since changing its operation model.
Founding the academy was envisioned as a way to support Iñupiaq students who weren’t succeeding in the traditional school environment, by providing them with culturally responsive education, said Morrie Lemen, executive director of Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.
“Some kids don’t learn in school, you know, in the Western environment,” Lemen said. “We’re failing them if we don’t do something about it. This was one way to step in and (help) those kids that have been left behind.”
Currently, about 13 students are attending the academy, and the number is slowly growing, Roseberry said.
The academy accepts students every quarter, and the courses are available year-round, sometimes even during Christmas time, “which gives them flexibility with our scheduling for subsistence and things going on in the community,” Roseberry said.
A personalized learning plan also works for students who prefer to study at their own pace and have other obligations, which was the case for Leonard Olson.
Olson, who is 21, grew up in Utqiaġvik and moved to Anchorage as a child. He was supposed to finish school in 2020 but fell behind. Keeping up with learning in crowded classrooms and then during Zoom meetings was hard, he said.
With the academy, Olson was able to take all classes he needed online, study at his own pace and talk to teachers whenever he needed help.
“We make them feel comfortable, and we work together, we work as a team,” Okakok said. “We don’t just sit around when we have students — we monitor them. We encourage them to ask questions. When a student raises their hand we help them right away.”
Olson said that he felt he did better studying in the academy than in a regular school. Now that he’s getting his diploma, he will be able to receive his professional license as a water and wastewater operator.
“I’m pretty thankful for the academy and I don’t know what I’d do without them,” he said. “My family’s very excited.”
Plans to reach every North Slope village
While most of the students come to the academy at the high school level and are around 18 or older, Lemen said that younger students will benefit from Inupiaq-centered education even more.
“Trying to teach somebody the language later on in life gets a little bit more trying,” Lemen said. “Language is really vital, and it’s being lost, so we want to try and preserve that language ... so we can preserve the way of life and make it more wholesome.”
The tribe — together with the North Slope Borough, the North Slope Borough School District and Iḷisaġvik College — is also looking for funding to expand the model and have a tribal school in each North Slope village, said Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope Secretary Doreen Leavitt.
“Inupiaq education is very, very important,” Leavitt said. “Our plan is to have one (academy) in every village.”
Lemen said that right now, the focus is applying for grants that would help the tribe to build facilities “in all the villages to be a place of learning and a place of gathering.”
For the next year, the tribe would need more than $6 million to hire 24 teachers, two principals and a secretary, as well as to lease facilities and budget for things like food, transportation, fuel and electric bills, Roseberry said.
Training teachers is another priority. Using one of the grants they received, Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope is in the process of developing an apprenticeship for North Slope educators. The plan is to provide them with stipends and training during the upcoming school year and have them lead special projects for students. In fall 2024, they would become full-time Ilisaqtitchiriit at the academy.
“Every village has their own personality and their own way of doing things — whaling and language; they have their own dialects,” Roseberry said. “It would be difficult for me to take an educator from Point Hope and have them try to teach in Wainwright because the dialect and practices in Point Hope are vastly different than in Wainwright, even when it comes to whaling. And they got clans in Point Hope and Wainwright does not.”
That’s why the tribe is working to hire three Ilisaqtitchiriit in every North Slope village.
“The whole focus is getting local educators,” Roseberry said.