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In rural Alaska, high teacher turnover still vexes

On a Tuesday in late July, three teachers waited at the baggage claim of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport amid cruise tourists and North Slope workers. None had yet set foot on Alaska soil outside the airport.

Soon, they would be headed north of the Arctic Circle to classrooms in villages accessible only by plane or boat.

The first to arrive were Grace Haejin Cho and Christina Price, two enthusiastic, 20-something best friends from suburban Denver with fresh teaching degrees and lots of duffel bags. Each had secured a job teaching elementary students at the only school in Buckland, an Inupiat village of 416 people 75 miles southeast of Kotzebue.

Next came Rolfe Schwartzkopf, a former professional bull rider from Wyoming who's also dabbled in long-haul trucking, oil-field work and cattle ranching. He was headed to Shungnak, on the Kobuk River 150 miles east of Kotzebue, after signing up for a job with the Northwest Arctic School District at a Kansas job fair.

For Schwartzkopf, teaching represented a midlife career change. Living in a village surrounded by wilderness is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. His most pressing immediate concern was that the bags containing his hunting rifles hadn't made it to Anchorage with him.

Each of the three used the word "adventure" to explain, at least in part, what drew them north.

Each year, about 400 teachers are hired from outside Alaska to staff rural schools. Research shows that most of them will leave after a year or two on the job.

Price, Cho and Schwarzkopf had no plans to leave. They had barely arrived. But the statistics against their longevity in the state are daunting: While teacher turnover is down slightly in recent years, rates reach nearly 50 percent in a few rural districts. In the Northwest Arctic School District, where all three were headed, an average of one in four teachers leave every year.

After decades, halting the constant churn of teachers through village schools remains one of Alaska's most vexing educational challenges.

An old problem with serious consequences

Alaska has imported most of its teachers since before statehood.

Today, about 75 percent of teachers working in Alaska were hired from outside of the state, according to research by University of Alaska Anchorage's Center for Alaska Education Policy Research.

Research shows that teachers hired from Outside tend to cycle through schools more quickly: Turnover rates from year to year top 30 percent in more than a few rural districts, much higher than urban Alaska districts.

Statistically speaking, the classrooms of rural Alaska are populated by teachers who tend to be from the Western or Midwestern states and fresh out of school.

An inability to retain teachers in rural schools is not a new problem, according to Diane Hirshberg, head of the CAEPR.

"This is a problem as old as time," she said. "We truly have had very high teacher turnover since missionaries were running our schools."

Children in rural schools have much to lose: A large and growing body of national research shows that high turnover and inexperienced teachers can have serious and negative impacts on student learning.

In the five highest turnover districts, which have an average yearly turnover rate of 37.9 percent, less than half -- an average of only 46.9 percent -- of students score "proficient" in reading on state tests.

By comparison, in the five districts with the lowest turnover, 85.8 percent of students score "proficient."

Teachers drawn to jobs in rural Alaska are not bad teachers, but many arrive without the years of classroom experience that research shows to be crucial for student success, Hirshberg said.

"There is very clear evidence that students show lesser gains in learning when they have less experienced teachers year in and year out," Hirshberg said.

Others may not have the skills necessary to thrive in the setting of a rural, remote school where one teacher may be tasked with instructing many grades and subject areas.

Rural Alaska is suffering the consequences of an unstable teaching workforce, Hirshberg said. With a revolving door of teachers, students fall behind, test scores and college completion rates are lower -- meaning fewer rural kids grow up to get the degrees necessary to become teachers. And districts continue to hire most of their workforce from Outside.

The struggle to keep teachers in their positions also costs districts time and money.

The Northwest Arctic School District spent about $85,000 recruiting teachers last year, said Annemarie O'Brien, the Kotzebue-based district superintendent. That included flying human resources personnel to places like Minnesota, Wyoming, Oregon and Montana, where new hires are often scooped up at job fairs.

Other rural districts must do the same to keep up with hiring, she said.

Professional development takes a hit, O'Brien said. It's difficult to build on last year's training when many of your staff members are new to the district each year.

"We're constantly starting over with new people," she said.

There's another, bigger loss when teachers cycle in and out of schools, said O'Brien, who came to Alaska herself to teach in Bethel in the 1970s: Children lose the sense that teachers are a stable part of their lives.

"The children aren't very trusting if they think the person teaching them will be gone in a year," she said.

Hirshberg agrees.

"You've got kids and parents saying, 'why should I invest in a relationship with this educator, when he or she is going to be gone in two years?'"

Second-most senior teacher

When the new teachers stepped off the plane in July, Tracy Bell and Lyle Melkerson were waiting for them just outside of security, exuding camp counselor friendliness.

Not long ago they'd been stepping through security into the Cinnabon-scented arrivals area of the Anchorage airport for the first time themselves.

For the last two years, Bell, a Michigan native, has taught in Selawik. Melkerson, also from Michigan, will be starting his second year as a teacher in Kivalina.

Both were graduates of a program aimed at giving new teachers a cultural orientation for the Inupiat villages they'd be teaching in.

The Creating Cultural Competence of Rural Early Career Teachers program, known as "C3," is in its third year of being administered by the Alaska Humanities Forum. It was funded by a three-year, $1.92 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education that ended in August.

The program uses "culture camps," held before the start of school, to expose teachers to Iñupiat culture. The Northwest Arctic Borough School District has participated in all three years of the program, sponsoring 10 teachers this summer. The Lower Kuskokwim School District participated in the first two years of the program.

The idea is that teachers can build "cultural competency" and arrive at their job sites better equipped to relate to their students and communities.

Now, as mentors with the program, Melkerson and Bell were supposed to greet the new arrivals.

After a few days of Costco runs and visits to Mr. Prime Beef in Anchorage to stock up on nine months' worth of groceries, 25 new teachers hired by the Northwest Arctic School District would be heading to Kotzebue for culture camp through a partnership between the school district and the C3 program.

After the camp, teachers would be paired with an experienced teacher mentor through UAF's Alaska Statewide Teacher Mentor Project, who would offer advice and support for the first two years in the classroom.

Ultimately, organizers of the C3 program hope the culture camp's head start, combined with mentoring, will combat high turnover by increasing the likelihood that teachers stay on the job.

So far, the results have been promising: According to program manager Carmen Davis, 87.2 percent of teachers who participated in the first two years of the C3 program in the Northwest Arctic and Lower Kuskokwim school districts returned to their districts for a second year on the job.

Already Bell and Melkerson have outlasted some of their colleagues.

This year, Bell is the second-most senior teacher in Selawik.

She, like Melkerson, studied to be a teacher in her home state of Michigan. After graduation, a depressed job market awaited. A job fair pointed her north.

She is happy in her classroom in Selawik and says she and her husband have been embraced by the community. She's learned some of the tricks of living in rural Alaska: Getting deals on expensive airline tickets and bulk-ordering her favorite organic tortilla chips from Amazon Prime.

Melkerson was standing in line at a recruitment fair in Michigan when his life trajectory abruptly pointed to Alaska.

"You look bored," the recruiter from the Northwest Arctic Borough School District said to him.

"I am bored," Melkerson said.

The recruiter asked him some questions to pass the time: Did he like hunting and fishing? Yes. Was he afraid of flying? No. Could he live without running water? Sure. Would you like a job? OK, why not?

Melkerson's father, a wildlife biologist, was delighted by the prospect. His mother was less so. Alaska seemed so far away.

He has taken to life in Kivalina, a coastal erosion-scarred village northwest of Kotzebue.

Melkerson lives in a remodeled teacher housing trailer from the 1950s, just feet from the seawall. When waves crash, they hit the trailer. The heat went out three times last winter.

"But we had a mild winter," he said.

He teaches math and science for sixth to 12th grade students. That means teaching pre-algebra and college prep physics in the same day.

Eighty percent of the teachers who taught at the Kivalina school last year didn't return this school year, Melkerson said.

"There's a gap in continuity and the kids suffer for it," he said.

When he first arrived in Kivalina, one student said Melkerson "wouldn't be back after Christmas."

Melkerson didn't want to be part of the churn of teachers cycling through Kivalina. He decided to stay.

Alaska grown teacher workforce slow to develop

Experts agree that the best way to address the teacher turnover problem is to ensure more Alaskans teach in their own communities.

While about 80 percent of rural students are Alaska Native, fewer than 5 percent of licensed teachers working in the state are.

"Many community and education leaders believe rural schools could benefit from having more such teachers, because they would likely stay on the job longer, be more familiar with their students' communities and cultures and provide more powerful role models for Alaska Native students," wrote researchers with the CAEPR in a June 2014 publication on the issue.

But progress has come slowly.

Ten programs intended to bring more Alaska Natives and rural residents into classrooms graduated a total of 172 teachers between 1970 and 2014, an average of four teachers per year, the paper reported.

"At that rate, the programs could never produce enough rural-resident Alaska Native teachers to increase their representation in Alaska's rural schools," the authors wrote. "And several of those programs have now been discontinued."

Terri Walker, the principal of the Buckland School, is the kind of educator researchers say Alaska needs more of.

Walker was raised in Buckland. When she was only 3 or 4 years old, people in the village noticed the way she constantly explained things to smaller children while she carried them around piggyback. Once, an elder told her she'd surely be a teacher when she grew up.

In elementary school, a long-term teaching couple in Buckland became an important part of her life. She saw them in the classroom but also was hired to help around their house. The couple ordered her clothes to pay her at end of month, and they let her use their running water, the only running water in village at the time, to take baths on weekends.

"They were a big part of my life," she said. "Just a really good family home environment."

The experience solidified her desire to teach. But leaving the village to earn credentials was wrenching.

Homesick, she dropped out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks after only a month. Later, she completed a bachelor's degree at the small, close-knit and now defunct Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka.

She went on to earn a master's degree from Oklahoma City University on a full scholarship with stipend. To complete it, she moved to Oklahoma with her three young children, a 17-year-old cousin and her husband. She finished the degree in a single year. She has also earned administrator certifications through online learning programs.

Walker has worked at the Buckland School for 25 years.

"I love my home," she said. "I would never leave. I tell the kids if I can't work at the school, I'll work at the Native store."

Now, as the principal, she is dealing with the problem of teacher turnover in her own school. After a long run of relative stability, five of the school's 10 classroom teachers left last year. A variety of personal circumstances took them, she said: New marriages, spouses with jobs elsewhere.

New staff members mean more work for her.

"It's training all over again," she said, taking a break from working at her desk on Labor Day. "Stuff you take for granted. Stuff other people who've been returning for 10 years know automatically."

Walker says she sees a few major obstacles to getting more rural residents into teaching careers.

Leaving the village for college can be disorienting. She thinks of her own first attempt at UAF.

"The hardest thing for students is to move away and be able to stay away. And going to college, when you're looking ahead it's like a never-ending thing," she said. "We need to provide higher education for students here rather than them move away."

In the Northwest Arctic, a partnership between the school district and UAF's Chukchi campus may allow some students to complete their last two years of high school and first two years of college in Kotzebue.

That could help, she said, because it would mean less time out of the region.

Other districts are taking different approaches to creating more homegrown certified teachers.

In Chevak, efforts are being made to help longtime teachers' aides and other paraprofessionals with years of classroom experience and strong community ties become certified teachers.

Since the 1980s, the Lower Kuskokwim School District has funded Yup'ik language teachers and other paraprofessionals who wanted to earn teaching credentials. More than 60 Alaska Native teachers have become certified this way, a CAEPR report found.

But for the most part, rural districts still face hiring many of their teachers from Outside.

Researchers are trying to understand what separates those who leave after a handful of years from those who spend decades.

So far, the answer is community.

A UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research survey on teacher perceptions of working conditions in rural Alaska released this year found that the biggest areas of workplace dissatisfaction were in parent and community support, student conduct and district leadership. Salary and benefits were less of an issue.

While teachers said money was less of a deciding factor, Hirshberg said Alaska rural teacher salaries -- once among the highest in the country -- are becoming less competitive. Life in villages remains extremely expensive.

"If we continue to have a decline in the relative spending power of teachers in rural Alaska, that's going to add to the problems and impact the quality of teachers we can recruit," she said.

Administrators can't control areas of dissatisfaction like lack of shopping or medical facilities, the report's authors concluded, but they can make teachers feel part of the community.

"If teachers feel unsupported or disconnected from communities, they will not stay," the report concluded.

Walker, the Buckland principal, says she knows that's true. The surest sign that a new teacher may stay long-term is when they start showing up at community events such as potlucks and basketball games.

Up the river to culture camp

In early August, after a frenzy of sightseeing and shopping in Anchorage, 25 newly hired Northwest Arctic School District teachers traveled first to Kotzebue, then to Kiana and then 8 miles north of the village to a camp on the banks of the Kobuk River.

This was the "C3" culture camp, which organizers hoped would give the teachers their first experience with village life, preparing them to arrive at their schools better-versed in Inupiat culture.

It used to be that teachers were schooled in Bush Living 101 -- information such as how to ship your belongings and groceries -- but not the cultural aspects of village life, said education researcher Hirshberg. Cultural orientations are becoming more common but are still not widespread.

"It's step No. 1. As long as we have to keep hiring teachers from Outside, it's good for them to meet people in the community, get an understanding of the culture and living conditions," she said.

At culture camp, the 25 new teachers hiked to the Kobuk sand dunes and learned knife-making and skin-sewing from village artisans. They ate caribou soup and moose roast, muktuk and berries. Everyone did chores and helped with meal preparation. They talked with elders and visited a fish camp.

Lyle Melkerson and Tracy Bell were there, acting as mentors to the new teachers. Rolfe Schwarzkopf, Christina Price and Grace Haejin Cho were too.

So was Angelia Kelly, a new teacher at the Kiana school from Casper, Wyoming.

After earning a master's degree and looking for work as a librarian unsuccessfully, Kelly went back to school in Colorado to become a certified teacher.

She, too, had been at a job fair when Alaska beckoned.

"I thought, why not? I love mountains and beautiful views. I always wanted to see Alaska. I've got no kids that are tying me to Colorado."

Walker traveled to culture camp and talked to the new teachers about the subtleties of Inupiat culture. The more teachers understood about the region's culture, the easier their transition would be to village life, she said.

"They got to watch firsthand our respect for elders, our respect for the land and subsistence life."

New beginnings

By late August, the new Northwest Arctic teachers were at their sites and in their classrooms. The first day of school had come and gone.

Angelia Kelly, a third and fourth grade teacher in Kiana, was settling in to her new home.

She'd been lucky that the culture camp she attended was near her own school site. Kelly had met elders, parents and all but two of her 12 students. On the first day of school, the kids already knew her name.

It seemed to her that everyone in Kiana said hello or waved from an ATV in the seven minutes it took her to walk from her teacher housing apartment to the school.

Kelly expected that the adjustment to life there would be a bit easier for her. She'd grown up in rural Wyoming, where the nearest mall was three hours away, the wind scoured the land and in the winter you could get snowed in.

But in late August, tundra was still gold and daylight plentiful. She figured the descent of Arctic winter darkness would be her biggest test.

"Even the people from here say the darkness can get you," she said. "And I'm not a very outdoorsy person -- I don't mind camping and hiking, but if it's freezing cold I'd rather stay inside."

Already she'd made some changes to her curriculum: The vocabulary dictionaries she'd planned probably weren't going to happen, she allowed. Time was too tight.

She was excited to see her students improve as the year progressed. Her goal was lofty: to increase test scores by 20 percent.

"And you know, I'd really like to stay a minimum of five years," she said.

The first bombshell of the year had not dropped yet: A fellow Kiana teacher named Owen Melvin Miller would later, on Aug. 29, be arrested in the principal's office after being served with a Missouri warrant that alleged sexual abuse against one of his adopted children. A substitute would have to step in and a search for a teacher to fill his spot launched.

For now, the school year was new, and everything was possible.

In an earlier version of this story, Center for Alaska Education Policy Research director Diane Hirshberg's name was spelled incorrectly.

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