BETHEL — When teacher Isabelle Dyment found herself in front of a classroom of kindergartners five years ago, she felt nearly as much at a loss as the scared, crying children just starting school.
She came with skills and knowledge. She's a mother of seven and a fluent Yup'ik speaker. But she had no college degree, no regular teaching certificate, no teaching experience.
"I had to learn everything on my own. I didn't know what to do," Dyment says. With help from her teacher aide and a fellow teacher, she quickly grew more confident and more comfortable. Yet she wanted more.
Now both Dyment and her employer, the Lower Kuskokwim School District, have sights on higher goals: college.
The Bethel-based school district wants a certified teacher in every classroom and expects to spend $500,000 to support those in college this budget year alone. It's the latest configuration of a long-standing effort across Alaska to create more homegrown teachers and address a worsening teacher shortage.
Dyment, who taught four years at Bethel's Yup'ik immersion school, is one of the first to plunge in. At 45, she is a full-time college student.
The district not only covers her bills at its partner college, University of Alaska Fairbanks, it also pays her salary so she can concentrate on her studies. She was one of a handful of associate teachers selected for the new program.
"We're putting a big investment into our people," said Josh Gill, director of personnel and student services for the district.
Urban school districts like Anchorage's generally only hire certified teachers. But in the Lower Kuskokwim district, dozens of classroom teachers have just a high school degree — and proven proficiency in Yup'ik. They also either passed a basic test similar to the old high school exit exam or have a couple of years of college behind them.
The district long has encouraged its nontraditional or associate teachers to work toward a degree and in 2013 began requiring it. But starting this school year, there is a deadline. The associate teachers — who mainly live and work in small Yup'ik village schools — must finish their college degree in 10 years.
If they don't, they will be out of a teaching job, Gill said.
Lower Kuskokwim is providing financial support and working with UAF to prevent that from happening.
For a remote region where luring and keeping teachers from elsewhere is a perpetual challenge, the looming requirement for a college degree marks a huge shift.
With about 4,300 students, the Lower Kuskokwim is the biggest rural school district in Alaska. Its 27 schools are spread among communities from Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea to Atmautluak on the tundra to the Kuskokwim River hub of Bethel.
This isn't postcard Alaska with mountains and glaciers. But it has its own beauty and riches with big, wild rivers, freezers full of salmon, moose and birds, and strong family and community ties.
The district has long taken advantage of a special state rule that allows those fluent in Alaska Native languages to be full-time classroom teachers without a degree.
There aren't enough college-educated teachers from the region, yet locals bring a knowledge of Yup'ik culture and language that outsiders lack, said Barb Angaiak, a district education specialist who coordinates career development for associate teachers.
Teaching the language of Southwest Alaska is another top school board goal here.
"The district is very committed to creating an opportunity for our students to be highly successful in any world they chose to be in, including this one," Angaiak said. Knowing the language is part of that.
Other districts have allowed those with deep knowledge of Alaska Native language and culture to teach those areas — but not to be the main teacher for math, social studies, language arts or other subjects, said Sondra Meredith, state administrator of teacher education and certification.
"They are teaching to a skill set they already have," she said.
A teacher shortage being felt around the country could be amplified in rural Alaska unless more locals take to the classroom, she said.
The Lower Kuskokwim district is unique. It has kept turnover down in part by hiring locals, with or without a college degree, Gill said.
About 20 percent of its almost 300 certified teachers are Alaska Native, the highest proportion in the state, he said. It also has 56 Yup'ik-speaking associate teachers.
Lower Kuskokwim still lost 15 percent of its teachers a year, on average, between 2007 and 2012, according to the most recent Alaska teacher turnover study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
That's higher than urban districts like Anchorage and Mat-Su but significantly better than a number of rural districts. Ten small districts were losing 30 to 40 percent of their teachers a year, and another, the Tanana city district, was losing half, ISER's 2013 report found.
"If we were in that 30 to 40 percent, we'd be in a lot of trouble," Gill said. That would mean hiring 100 or so teachers a year rather than 45 or so.
The Lower Kuskokwim brings in student teachers from all over the United States to give them a semesterlong taste of rural life. It sends recruiters with binders of photos of the region to teacher job fairs. And it has a multipronged effort to help the people already here become teachers.
From Napaskiak to Fairbanks
Around 70 people connected to the region are in some type of district-funded college program.
For students who are full time — and most aren't — the new teacher must commit to a year in the region for every semester paid by the district. Others must agree to a year in the region for a year of help.
"If I get done in time, it will be eight years at least," said John Sipary, 18 of Napaskiak, describing his commitment to return to Southwest Alaska. He's in his first year at UAF studying education, largely with financial help from the district.
Sipary hopes to follow his mother and grandmother and make a career of teaching.
"Honestly, it is just to give back to the community," Sipary said. "To keep my culture and traditions, to give back to future generations."
He is one of a handful of recent Lower Kuskokwim high school graduates the district is supporting to earn a bachelor's degree in education. He also is the recipient of a separate $4,000 school board scholarship plus a scholarship from Coastal Villages Region Fund, a fishing group.
The Lower Kuskokwim School Board gives scholarships of $2,000 for non-Yup'ik speakers and $4,000 to those with the language that can be used at any school.
The district also covers UAF bills for the associate teachers, who must take at least nine college credits a year, often through video or online classes. Even that is hard for someone working full-time, Gill said. And at that pace, an associate won't have a degree within 10 years.
Many of those participating in one college program or another are Yup'ik and from the area. All have passed this test: To get the financial support, they must have lived in the region at least five years.
"Living in Bush Alaska is not for everybody," Gill said.
Southwest Alaska can seem more like another nation than part of the United States. It's a harsh yet beautiful land with its own language and customs.
In some villages, not all homes have running water, though most teacher housing does. In most villages, there aren't roads. People drive four-wheelers or snowmachines. Flights often don't make it in. Stores regularly run out of basics.
Even veterans in the classroom can find village life challenging. For a brand-new teacher fresh from college, it can be overwhelming, Gill said.
Sipary said he remembers how hard it was to connect to a teacher new to rural ways.
"I was scared. Sometimes I was afraid to open up to them because of the fact they were outsiders," Sipary said. He hopes to use his college education to bring his experiences into a village classroom.
Teaching the outside world
Gill first came to the region 14 years ago as a teacher in the village of Tuntutuliak, about 40 miles from the Bering coast. He remembers doing a math word problem involving a bus trip with his elementary students in the village.
"What's it like to ride on the bus?" one boy asked.
At first, Gill thought the kid was messing with him. Then he realized the boy didn't know. Gill parlayed that into an annual school field trip to Seattle that taught kids about planning, fundraising and the outside world.
Not all outside teachers connect in that way. And not everyone from the region has control of teaching methods that weave real life into academics. Why not, Gill said, take the people already committed to rural life and give them the tools to be better teachers?
Currently, there are 56 associate teachers, those without degrees but who are fluent in Yup'ik. They are chipping away at a degree under that new 10-year deadline.
"These for the most part are people who are self-taught and have learned how to teach from observing others or just thinking about what they believe and testing it out," Angaiak said.
The top end of the pay scale for an associate –$52,000. For a regular teacher –$93,000-plus. Yet their responsibilities are the same. Those who get their degrees will get raises, too.
'Two and done'
Lower Kuskokwim sends its teachers-in-training to UAF, which has had an undergraduate degree program geared for rural areas since 1972, said Carol Barnhardt, chair of the UAF elementary education department.
The Lower Kuskokwim district has a stable group of top administrators committed to homegrown teachers, she said.
The associates not only learn techniques, philosophies and child behavior, they also must study math, science and other areas, so they end up with a better base of knowledge.
As the district requirements increased, UAF set up an extensive support system that includes rural advisers to guide students. It sends faculty to village schools each October. Classes fold in aspects of rural life.
UAF is not the only campus working for more homegrown teachers. At the University of Alaska Southeast, any Alaska Native student who wants to become a teacher gets a full-ride scholarship, said Meredith, with the state education department.
Dyment, the Bethel associate teacher now in school full-time, is one of four associates in the new program called "two and done." The Lower Kuskokwim district pays both salaries and college costs for selected existing employees within two years of finishing a degree.
"That was the genius of Josh Gill," Angaiak said.
It otherwise was taking too long to get more certified teachers, Gill said.
Dyment grew up in the Nelson Island village of Toksook Bay and tried college for a year and half in Fairbanks early on. Then she moved back to the region and didn't know if she ever would get a degree.
She started teaching in Bethel's Yup'ik immersion school and took college classes after hours to meet the district requirement. But it was a strain. She has a big family to care for too.
When she was offered the chance to be done in two years, she made sure her husband, Hugh, who is a teacher and dean at Kuskokwim Learning Academy, was on board. Some nights he is in charge of the kids, homework, dinner, getting them to events.
On weekends, the family often enjoys the city pool. Dyment goes too, even if she must sit out on the side doing homework at first.
She is staying in Bethel and taking classes both online and in person on the Kuskokwim campus.
In the fall semester, she took a natural history biology class that included soil testing and other fieldwork. For a project, she researched mosquitoes, where they nest, how they hibernate, why the females are the ones that bite.
"They can lay up to 300 eggs," she remembered telling the class. "If you kill one mosquito, there are another 299 of the babies."
This time around, she's ready for college, she said. She's showing her kids how important school is. She's learning new ways of teaching too.
"I've always considered myself a teacher. I never looked down on myself because I didn't have a degree," Dyment said.
The district may never make the goal of having all certified teachers and enough Yup'ik speakers too, Gill said. But it is getting closer.
Three new teachers this school year got their degrees with district support.