The North Slope Borough’s first charter school opened for enrollment last week with 60 slots for high school students in Utqaigvik, Wainwright and one additional undetermined community. Qargi Academy, named after the Iñupiaq word for “community house,” restructures education with an emphasis on Iñupiaq language, culture and tradition.
"The blended education model of culture and technology definitely promotes a different frame of mind and a different thought," said Principal Emily Roseberry. "Ultimately, we believe this will really enhance the learning of our students because they'll be grounded in their culture."
The multi-site charter is initially opening in Utqiagvik and Wainwright, with a capacity to open in one other village based on interest, Roseberry said. In the meantime, the academy will also offer a virtual Qargi for students in villages without one.
Qargi Academy is free for all students on the North Slope. The North Slope Borough supported the school with a $3 million addition to the district general fund, in addition to an expected $400,000 from the state (based on student enrollment).
Curriculum will include two hours of online learning with teacher support, followed by five-and-a-half hours a day of instruction in Iñupiaq language, culture and heritage. A normal day for a student might look like this: Two hours of online learning through EdOptions Academy, the online platform; an hour of Iñupiaq language; an hour of Iñupiaq conversation with community Elders; kin sewing class; and, Eskimo dancing.
Just like any other charter school, students will participate in statewide performance testing, called Performance Evaluation for Alaska's Schools (PEAKS).
The idea of separating academics from culture is aimed at better addressing Alaska Natives — particularly those who have dropped out, become disenfranchised, or feel unmotivated — by changing from a traditionally Western schooling system.
A study conducted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found that supplementing culture into curriculum improved learning for Alaska Natives. In it, researchers took Native students berry picking to learn measuring, and saw measurable improvement in students' mathematic performances.
"Part of what we look at that could be playing a factor in the unsatisfactory academic performances of our students is our students today are not grounded in who they are as indigenous people," Roseberry said.
To address the learning difference, Qargi Academy will focus on embracing the Iñupiaq ways of teaching and learning.
Within the Western education model of the North Slope, students spend only one hour a day learning Iñupiaq, and are often behind if they miss school to help their families with subsistence hunts, or go on vacations when dividends are paid out.
The Qargi Academy offers flexibility for students by taking cultural practices into account, and allowing for schooling anywhere a student can access the internet.
"Families going off on their subsistence camping (and) whaling — that becomes part of the curriculum of the student when they're participating in actual events that are taking place," Roseberry said.
The academy also works toward enhancing fluency in Iñupiaq language. According to a 2014 Guardian report, Iñupiaq speakers in the North Slope are limited to 2,144 people.
In Utqiagvik, Bobby Itta and Corrine Danner will serve as the Ilisaqtitchiriit, or Iñupiaq teachers. They will learn alongside their students with assistance from cultural specialist Dick Weyiouanna.
Itta, a second-year instructor who previously taught at Hopsson Middle School, said she's seen the transformation of a hands-on approach to learning in her own classroom.
"I taught language and skin sewing and I saw a big difference in (students) after I got them involved in hands-on work," Itta said. "It really made a big difference in my most troubled students."
Danner grew up in Utqaigvik in a subsistence family, and is one of the women who sews seal skin boats for her communities' whaling crews.
"I'm really happy to share what I am talented in, sewing and parka-making," Danner said. "I myself am struggling learning my own language and I'm going to be learning with the children and having the guidance with me, having the cultural specialist here and the principal."
In Wainwright, Tommilynn Ahmaogak and Qannik Okakok will serve as Ilisaqtitchiriit. Okakok is a fluent speaker, and said she's excited to bring her knowledge to the students.
Weyiouanna is coming out of retirement to support staff in speaking and in producing culturally-relevant items. Among the items he specializes in are tool making, drum making and three-dimensional carving pieces.
"Along the way the students will get experienced with how we experience the finer parts of living, in every which way," he said.
Kawa Danner, who will work to assist the staff, has experienced a charter school first-hand where she grew up in Hawaii.
"I've lived through the benefits of charter school and went on to graduate from college with my associate degree," she said.
"Our children need this," Kawa Danner said. "This is just another choice for students and families on the North Slope who don't feel their needs are being met."
Qargi Academy intends to begin school as planned on Sept. 8. If COVID-19 does not allow for in-person meetings, the Qargi will meet remotely, Roseberry said.
Enrollment is open until all slots are filled. To learn more or enroll, visit Qargi Academy’s Facebook page and website QargiAcademy.org.
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