In Alaska, massive achievement gaps separate Native and white students

President Barack Obama's trip to Alaska this week has brought new attention to climate change and energy production and the name of the nation's highest mountain. But some in Alaska are hoping that the president's visit also helps shine a light on the needs of the state's public education system.

Alaska, which educates about 130,000 children in preschool through 12th grade, faces achievement gaps that rival or exceed those of the most troubled urban school systems in the Lower 48.

Only 57 percent of Alaska Native students graduated on time in 2013, for example, compared to 78 percent of white students. Only 7 percent of Alaska Native fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to 41 percent of white Alaskans.

But as teachers and principals work to close those gaps, they face budget problems caused by a dramatic drop in the price of oil, on which the state's coffers overwhelmingly depend. And they face perennially high teacher turnover, particularly in far-flung rural villages, that makes it difficult to build and sustain meaningful school improvements.

To Doreen Brown, a Yup'ik educator who heads federally funded Indian education programs for the Anchorage School District, it's impossible to divorce those challenges from the issue of climate change.

"I can't separate those two," she said. "In order to address climate change we're going to have to do it through the education system."

She said young people need to learn what is causing the climate change they're seeing in their daily lives. "This is our connection to our land, to our fishing, our hunting, our language, our cultural practices. It is who we are. I don't really see it being disconnected."

Brown said that the state's massive achievement gaps are rooted partly in history: Schools, for generations, were places that sought to break indigenous peoples' connections with their language, their culture and their heritage.

Now many educators want to help young Alaska Natives rebuild those connections. But it's slow work.

"There's a lot of historical trauma. There's a lot of distrust," Brown said.

Last week, Obama named Brown to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, which advises Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the funding and administration of federal programs for Indian education.

Brown, who oversees $3 million in federal spending on Indian education programs in Anchorage, said she sees her role as a steward for the state's efforts to better reach Native students. She said she wants to see indigenous language classes more widely available in schools, and wants them to count toward graduation in the same way that world languages, like Spanish and French, do.

Schools statewide need to examine what they are doing to engage their Native students, she said. Alaska Native educators have developed strong standards for schools that embrace Native culture and weave it into their lessons.

"Are districts adhering to that?" she said. "What kind of culturally responsive practices are within the school? Are there traditions and heritage and language embedded into all phases of the curriculum?"

She said she wants to push state officials to provide alternative licensing for tribal elders, who have much to teach young people but who aren't certified. She said there's a need for more adequate and equitable resources to educate Natives. And she said there's a serious discussion to be had about giving Alaska tribes control over schools that serve their children and that are currently run by school districts.

If tribes controlled their own schools, she said, they might make hire people who are willing to become part of and stay in the community, stemming the teacher turnover problem.

Brown had hoped that Obama would mention education in his speech about the perils of climate change. He didn't.

But she said the president has made important overtures to Natives and American Indians, pointing to the administration's Generation Indigenous initiative to bring more attention to the community problems — including poverty, substance abuse and suicide — that Native youth disproportionately face.

"It's an exciting time," Brown said. "I know President Obama ... is really looking as a nation at how education is not working for everyone."