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Hometown U: Tribal schools in Alaska

  • Author: Kathleen McCoy
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 12, 2015

Alaska's budget crisis is certainly urgent and destined to affect both how schools across the state are funded and what that funding looks like. But another need predates even this dramatic budget crunch: How have Alaska public schools served their indigenous students?

Data show the report card isn't good. Alaska Native students drop out at rates triple the national average. In 2013-14, they made up 23.3 percent of students in grades 7 to 12 but accounted for 37.8 percent of dropouts in those grades. Their dropout rate was 6.4 percent compared with 4 percent for other Alaska students.

How about successful graduations? In 2013-14, the rate for all Alaska high school students was 71.1 percent; for Alaska Native students, it was 54.9 percent -- the lowest among all racial and ethnic groups in the state.

This disappointing performance has been a concern for decades. "People intuitively understand that the system is a shoe that does not fit…" summed up a 2012 stakeholder report seeking better outcomes.

Now, two Alaska policy think tanks will work together to discover what system might be a better fit, and what steps could lead there.

UAA's Center for Alaska Education Policy Research (CAEPR) and the Alaska Native Policy Center at First Alaskans Institute (FAI) have applied jointly to the National Science Foundation for funding to explore with indigenous Alaskans what an ideal education system would look like, and how it would best be governed. They expect a funding decision this summer, which could allow work to begin in the fall.

Wednesday, I spoke with Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy and CAEPR's director, to learn more about the proposed three-year project.

Plans for the new study have emerged amidst an ongoing conversation in the state about whether Alaska needs tribal schools. In the last 40 or 50 years, mostly in the Lower 48, a tribal schools movement has caught fire under the non-profit umbrella of TEDNA, the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly.

In many corners of our state, Alaskans have taken notice. Indeed, the Native Village of Kotzebue successfully passed resolutions before the 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives and the 2014 National Congress of American Indians calling for tribally operated schools in Alaska through restored funding from the Bureau of Indian Education.

This path may prove problematic. Alaska is home to more than 200 federally recognized tribes. Though lands transferred to Native corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) are not "Indian Country," Alaska tribes continue to pursue the right of self-determination. Recognition of tribal sovereignty is contentious because of the link to so many other disputed issues, including subsistence rights, consultation and cooperation on resource development, and tribal court authority, especially over public safety issues in rural communities.

Still, CAEPR's own research in the Lower 48 and globally shows that self-determination in education is a key factor for success. And since territorial days, the state's indigenous peoples have not been able to exercise independent control over the publicly funded schooling of their children.

Yes, the 1976 "Molly Hootch Case" mostly retired boarding schools and brought secondary schools into village settings. There are exceptions, but most local school boards still defer key decisions to school officials, and many education policies are set far away in Juneau. Other complicating factors include high teacher turnover rates, a cultural disconnect between imported teachers and their constituents, and standardized testing and other state mandates. Many families remain disengaged.

"We know that our rural schools, for the most part, are not succeeding with indigenous students," Hirshberg said. "But some are."

Schools making headway tend to be more closely connected to indigenous cultural values, like Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yupik Immersion School in Bethel, or the North Slope Borough School District's schools, implementing lessons based on the Inupiaq Learning Framework.

And student success has long been linked with Mt. Edgecumbe High School, the only state-run residential boarding school, located in Sitka and serving mainly rural Alaskans. "What makes that so? High expectations that all of these children can succeed," Hirshberg said.

That same ambition has catalyzed the CAEPR/FAI study. It has several phases. In the first, researchers will scope for six communities across the state with deep interest in examining educational issues. FAI will host a Tribal Governance Forum to engage all interested tribes in discussing their vision for education, as well the governance structures needed to support that vision.

A second phase includes facilitated community dialogues on education and governance facilitated by research teams that include community members and culture bearers. A final phase will focus on action plans to achieve these community visions for what educating indigenous Alaskans will look like and how that system might be governed.

The quest for true change underpins this ambitious study. In their joint grant proposal, researchers describe a frank discussion from just one year ago "on the need to move beyond the seemingly endless talk of the past 20 years on how to improve Alaska Native education outcomes. Participants agreed that it was time for action based on what tribes themselves want for their schools, rather than just more talking by mostly non-indigenous policymakers and educators.

"This project explores how to operationalize those intentions."

Kathleen McCoy works for UAA, where she highlights campus life in online and social media.

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