The Arctic Sounder

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

Anaktuvuk Pass resident Jana Esmailka has been working as a paraprofessional at Nunamiut School for about eight years. She said she tried to get her teacher certificate several years ago but it was difficult for her as a mother with two small children. So when this spring Esmailka heard about a new apprenticeship program that could help her get certified as a teacher and continue working in her home community, 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. We ain’t getting any younger.”

Esmailka is among 17 people enrolled in the Tribal Educator Apprenticeship, a program that 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.

Developed by the nonprofit Arctic Slope Community Foundation, the apprenticeship 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 Arctic Slope Community 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.

“They’re gone in a year and the kids are noticing that,” Glenn said. “Where’s the time to develop trust in the relationship or feel valued?”

Walker said that “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.”

Looking into the apprenticeship

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, said Jason Christensen, grants manager for the foundation. In March, they received approval from the U.S. Department of Labor and registered the program federally.

The apprenticeship includes several elements. In the fall, apprentices will begin their on-the-job training and mentorship from existing educators who are cultural and subject experts, Christensen said. Most apprentices will shadow experienced teachers and with time will start taking on some students.

On the academic side, apprentices will take the University of Alaska Anchorage courses, redesigned with the employed educator in mind, said Tonia Dousay, dean of the UAA School of Education.

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.

The program allows apprentices to choose the level of education they want to receive. For each participant, UAA develops an individualized plan to transfer their relevant academic experience and fast-track them through the program when possible, Dousay said.

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.

What makes the ASCF’s Tribal Educator Apprenticeship program unique is that it reflects the principles outlined in the North Slope Borough School District’s Iñupiaq learning framework and offers other cultural learning experiences, Christensen said.

[Longtime North Slope educator honored for putting Inupiaq at the center of learning]

This summer, apprentices will attend a week-long Place-Based Learning Bootcamp in Hilo, Hawaii, to learn more about localized curriculum development and instruction, that is rooted in culture and history and is adhering to the regional education standards, Christensen 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, Christensen said.

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 Knik Tribe STEAM Academy as a junior instructor for the subsistence hunting and field safety program, teaching students ways of harvesting animals and living off the land.

“I get to teach the students who are from the villages but are in a hub area,” Lujan said. “My job is to teach them about their area, their culture and their region.”


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.

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.