HOOPER BAY -- In a village school less than a decade old, teachers try to connect with some of the hardest-to-reach students in Alaska.
"How can you stay safe in bad weather?" kindergarten teacher Herminia Whipple asks her students. She reminds them how windy and cold it was just the day before, reminds them to keep their hands on their desks. Those who quietly raise a hand are called on to give an answer. Wear a snow suit. Use a hat. Wear boots. Stay home.
When the weather is cold and the wind is strong, just walking to school can be too much, and that's just one thing.
Test scores from last school year show the challenge at Hooper Bay School. In reading, 44 percent of the students were far below proficient and another 34 percent below proficient. In math, 65 percent were far below and 17 percent below. In science, 80 percent were far below and another 10 percent below proficient. Just 2 percent of the students were advanced in reading, with 3 percent advanced in math last school year; higher numbers were rated proficient.
Not a single student at Hooper Bay School tested as advanced in science.
"There is nothing wrong with our kids. Our kids are very smart kids," principal Hammond Gracy said. Gracy, officially the school instructional leader, is in his first year at Hooper Bay -- and his first year in Alaska -- after a long career as an educator in Florida, most recently in Marathon on the Keys.
The marks of Hooper Bay students are like those of many in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and elsewhere in Bush Alaska. They score far below their urban counterparts on standardized tests. But Gracy and others say expectations are high and they are trying new ways to establish what he calls "a climate of success" for Hooper Bay kids.
Focusing on the good
School administrators throughout the Lower Yukon School District are trying to improve student performance with research-tested tools. They are using a national model called Response to Intervention as a framework that involves weekly monitoring of students academically and behaviorally.
At Hooper Bay, which is fully embracing the system this school year, school lets out an hour early on Wednesdays so teachers can meet in groups to assess each student, an approach based on the research of nationally known educators Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker. For those who are struggling, teachers target the response. Maybe the answer is one-on-one tutoring in the problem area. Maybe a school psychologist needs to be brought in. Maybe the child just needs a classroom time-out.
They also are trying a new approach to managing student behavior that replaces the old discipline model. Instead of punishing children who act up, who won't listen, who pick on each other in the hallways, administrators are urging teachers to catch children behaving well and to praise them for it. Expectations are taught like lesson plans.
When Hooper Bay students in the early grades walk down the hall for lunch or Yup'ik class, they clasp their hands behind their backs. Before a school assembly, students are told what noise level is allowed. When kindergartners finish their spelling tests, they are reminded to hold their pencils up in the air. Whipple, the teacher, calls out the names of the ones who do it correctly.
"It's a pretty calm, civil place with a lot of happy sounds," said Dan Walker, a state school improvement coach who has been working with Hooper Bay for three years.
The approach is built on a national model called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.
"It's counterintuitive," said Mary Rifredi, the assistant principal. "We are hard-wired to notice what is amiss. It takes some work on the part of an adult to notice who is following the rules."
But it's not a lenient approach, she said. It's a different tone. If a child loses it in class, she said, the teacher needs to remember "he's probably upset about something else." The teacher must stay calm and use a soft voice, an approach with its own name, STOIC: Structure. Teach. Observe. Interact positively. Correct calmly.
Statistics show promise. During the first 60 days of school last fall, the number of children in serious trouble dropped dramatically from the same period in 2012 and again in 2013. Just 28 were suspended compared to 84 two years earlier. Referrals to the principal's office were also down after a big rise in 2013.
"Suspension doesn't change anything," Gracy said. "It's punitive."
Plus, the suspended students have no chance to learn.
"The data that I'm seeing from Hooper Bay is astounding," said Wil Sprott, assistant superintendent for the Lower Yukon School District. "They are showing some remarkable results in student discipline."
The challenge of village schools
The school has about 450 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and 31 classroom teachers on a stable staff that totals about 70. Two teachers -- a married couple who met there -- have taught there 17 years. Turnover in Hooper Bay overall is low for a village school -- only one or two teachers left last school year, according to the district office. Its Yup'ik name is Naparyarmiut Elicarviat, after a nearby slough.
The school was built in 2006 to replace an old one that burned. There's a Mac lab, a library with reading nooks and Alaska Native art. The cafeteria has giant windows overlooking the frozen bay. Salmon was served for lunch one day recently.
There are few jobs in the village and many families are cash-poor, heating with driftwood when they cannot afford stove oil. A number of children are being raised by family members other than their parents. Homebrew disrupts lives, teachers said. Some old houses are little better than shacks crumbling after decades of battering from powerful coastal winds.
Many children in Hooper Bay speak Yup'ik as their first language, so just learning in English is difficult.
Some start with disadvantages and others bump up against them later on.
"I wish it was harder here," said junior Samantha Hoelscher, who was in the school library one afternoon practicing with others on a videoconference for the GCI Alaska Academic Decathlon, which took place in late February in Anchorage. She was the lone Hooper Bay student on the district team. Her father, James, is the village public safety officer.
In particular, Hoelscher said she wanted to take Algebra II, but it was only offered online. That didn't fit her learning style.
High school math teacher Molly Hale said she recognizes the frustration. She is originally from St. Mary's and has taught 14 years in Hooper Bay, where she is one of seven Alaska Native teachers. In a village, so much revolves around the school. One year she taught advanced algebra for a class of just six students, all of whom were college-bound.
"I wanted them to be prepared for the math they would encounter in the city," she said.
Gracy, the principal, said that he's working to ensure a good mix of higher-level classes. "That has to be the expectation."
Algebra II should be offered next year, he said.
"Now, it may be a three-kid class."
'Best kids in town'
Whipple saw the language gap firsthand. With a waiting list for the village Head Start program, she and fifth-grade teacher Nemy Armstrong started a late-afternoon preschool now in its second year. She wants her kindergartners prepared.
"At home, some grandparents are taking care of them. They speak Yup'ik. So when they come in, they have less (English) vocabulary," said Whipple, who is Filipino and whose first language is Visayan dialect. In the Philippines, she taught a class of 63 third-graders in a remote rainforest. The school had no electricity or plumbing. At Hooper Bay's fully-plumbed school, she has 19 kindergarten students and the support of a full-time aide. The preschool has attracted a similar number.
She teaches all in English. The school also has all-Yup'ik immersion classes for kindergarten through second grade. Parents choose the track. Whipple's students are pulled out four days a week for 30 minutes of Yup'ik.
Midway through this school year, all her kindergartners were reading at least a little, even the ones who didn't go to preschool, Whipple said. One of her more advanced kindergartners now is teaching her little brother.
Classroom observers have taken note. Whipple, who has a master's degree in multicultural education, has been noted for her strong skills. Gracy called her "a world-class teacher" who would be an asset anywhere.
"I am going to pick the kids who are the best kids in town to come over here," Whipple told her kindergarten students one morning. "Then we are going to read."
The genre that day was myth, she said, explaining that it was a kind of story. She read them "Rainbow Crow," a fable about how the crow lost its colors.
When a little boy wiggled too much and wouldn't sit in his chair, Whipple asked him to settle down, then sent him to work with her aide.
Some of the concepts are hard. She showed them pictures of words with "k" sounds: sock, rock, kangaroo, kite, tack, key, duck. She wanted them to say the words that end with a "k."
"Kangaroo!" they shouted.
"Kangaroo is not 'k' at the end," Whipple said. "It's a beginning sound. We're looking for the ending sound."
She kept at it. They kept saying "kangaroo."
It's a lesson she'll come back to another day.
The focus comes back to a philosophy that works as well in Hooper Bay as in the Florida Keys, Gracy said.
"It's all about learning and doing it in a safe, orderly and respectful way," he said. "It should drive all the work that we do."