New tribal apprenticeship program provides a pathway to certify more local teachers

A new program is working to provide a pathway for education workers in the Arctic and tribal communities around the state to transition into teaching, aiming to produce more local teachers and nurture a more stable learning environment for students.

A Tribal Educator Apprenticeship, developed by the nonprofit Arctic Slope Community Foundation, allows local paraprofessionals — trained aides who support teachers and students — to receive several levels of education, including getting licensed to teach preschool through third grade.

“It’s our way of getting our community members’ foot in the door if they want to climb the career ladder within a school system,” said Patuk Glenn, executive director of the foundation.

The new program includes on-the-job learning, mentorship, academic coursework and cultural training. It also accounts for the experience apprentices have. This year, 17 apprentices enrolled in the program: nine from the Northwest Arctic Borough, five from the North Slope and three from the Knik Tribe STEAM Academy.

“These are the people from the region. They are committed to home, they are committed to our children, and they work with them every day,” Terri Walker, the superintendent for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, said in an email.

Turnover rates for teachers in Alaska have stayed around 22% in recent years, higher than most other U.S. states, according to the federal Institute for Education Sciences. Rates are higher in rural areas, according to the institute. In rural Alaska districts, teachers often come from bigger cities in the state or other parts of the country, and many of them quickly leave before developing trust with students, said Glenn.

“The solution to that turnover is to grow our teachers from those born and raised here, who live and breathe the Inupiaq lifestyle every day, to those who will be here long after others have gone,” Walker said.


‘We are the next generation’

One of the apprentices, Anaktuvuk Pass resident Jana Esmailka, has been working as a paraprofessional in the Nunamiut School for about eight years. Esmailka said she tried to get her teaching certificate several years ago, but it was difficult for her as a mother with two small children. So when this spring she heard about a program that could help her get certified as a teacher, she enrolled without a doubt.

“I really do love all the kids and I love to watch them all grow each school year,” said Esmailka, 26. “I’m basically doing this for our village and our kids, and I’m hoping that the young adults know that there is a lot of opportunities to take, especially like this program. We are the next generation to start taking over.”

The Arctic Slope Community Foundation received a grant of more than $2 million from the U.S. Department of Education to develop the Tribal Educator Apprenticeship. In March, they received approval from the U.S. Department of Labor and registered the program federally.

In addition to mentorship and on-the-job training and cultural learning, apprentices will take University of Alaska Anchorage courses, designed for working educators.

The first two years of the program will allow an apprentice to become a licensed paraprofessional. After another two years, apprentices would earn more credits to receive a Bachelor of Arts in early childhood education. The participants will then become eligible to take a specialized teacher certification exam and get licensed to teach preschool through early grades.

For each participant, UAA develops an individualized plan to transfer their relevant academic experience and fast-track them through the program when possible, said Tonia Dousay, dean of the UAA School of Education.

In total, UAA works with about 40 employed educators in teacher apprenticeships across the state, run by the Bristol Bay Regional Career and Technical Education Program, Rural Alaska Community Action Program and Sealaska Heritage Institute, in addition to the Arctic Slope Community Foundation, Dousay said.

Growing their own

The apprenticeship program supports young professionals who might want to stay in their communities, as well as longtime school system employees who never left to get fully credentialed.

Heather Lujan, who was raised in Mountain Village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, is also participating in the program.

Lujan worked toward a degree in elementary education after high school but said she had to put that goal aside. Now Lujan lives in Wasilla and works for the Knik Tribe STEAM Academy as a junior instructor for the subsistence hunting and field safety program.

Lujan said she enrolled in the apprenticeship program hoping to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. She also said she wants to inspire her students to pursue careers in education.

“When we have local teachers, it really sends a message to our students that you can do it, you can be just like me. ... It gives them confidence,” she said. “Creating this program to help communities recruit locals to become educators in the community — it benefits the family, it benefits the economy, it benefits the village because you create a position for a local and they become successful and it circulates.”

Correction: The story was updated to reflect that on-the-job training, required for the Tribal Educator Apprenticeship, does not count toward academic credits.

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Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.