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Alaska schools have upside-down twins in New Zealand. Here’s what they can teach us.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 21, 2018
  • Published June 21, 2018

Airport Heights Elementary librarian Leslie Hannam, photographed at her home Friday, June 15, 2018. Hannam won a Fulbright Scholarship to study diverse schools and indigenous instruction in New Zealand. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Schools in New Zealand teach a mix of kids similar to schools in Anchorage. That's how far you have to go to find a school as unusual as Airport Heights Elementary.

New Zealand is our upside-down twin in a lot of ways (or so I've learned, since I've never been there). The scenery and the remoteness are only the start.

Captain James Cook made first contact with Native peoples in both places in the 1770s and left behind geography with duplicate names of British naval officers. We have Cook Inlet and Gore Point, they have Cook Strait and Gore Bay (John Gore was Cook's first lieutenant on his last voyage).

The later damage to indigenous cultures followed a similar process as well. A generation of Maori children were denied the right to speak their own language in school, leaving a shortage of indigenous language teachers now — just as in Alaska.

And both places have been discovered by a new wave of migrants seeking opportunity in relatively untamed corners of the globe.

Which brings us back to Airport Heights, where the school librarian, Leslie Hannam, won a Fulbright Scholarship from the U.S. State Department to spend much of the next year in New Zealand and learn how to teach her own diverse students.

The largest group of students at Airport Heights is Asian, mostly Hmong whose families were originally from Laos, followed by Alaska Natives, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, mostly Samoan. Whites make up the fifth-largest group at the school — sixth, if you count people who report more than one race.

More than a third of Airport Heights students are learning English at the same time as their other subjects. A third also have some form of disability. The average family income is low, with 85 percent getting free or reduced lunch.

The school receives Title 1 federal funding to boost education for kids without privileges.

Hannam is white and lives in a big house in South Anchorage. Her husband is an attorney. The majority of the elementary school educators in our diverse state are white, middle-class women who share little background with their minority students.

When she got to Airport Heights, Hannam did a graphing lesson, asking students how many people lived in their homes to match the bars on the graph. She made the largest bar equal to 15. But a child raised his hand and said 22.

Her own children attended some of Anchorage's array of charter and magnet schools, which generally have higher test scores. She has worked in a variety of schools, but right before Airport Heights she was at Winterberry, the Waldorf-style charter school.

Winterberry is a terrific school. Parents are deeply involved. They are generally older and have the time and resources to make their children feel like the center of the universe.

Recent immigrants struggling to get started don't have that luxury.

At Winterberry, Hannam said, "I was constantly reminding my students that they aren't that special."

Her style has changed.

"Going to a Title 1 school, kids who maybe haven't gotten that much attention, I had to constantly build them up — you are special," she said.

Airport Heights Elementary librarian Leslie Hannam, photographed at her home Friday, June 15, 2018. Hannam won a Fulbright Scholarship to study diverse schools and indigenous instruction in New Zealand. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Airport Heights sits in a pleasant subdivision of single-family houses. Many of the 325 students come by bus from the huge Penland Park mobile home park, said Principal Mike Webb. About 100 students who could walk to the school instead opt to leave the neighborhood for magnet and charter schools.

Webb wants them back. Mixing kids with more home advantages with those who are learning English would improve the school for everyone. But parents with the ability to drive to distant schools with higher test scores make that choice for obvious reasons. You only get one chance with your kids.

Webb said he has been in those conversations as a father and has heard the social pressure on parents.

"I think there is a perception that the neighborhood schools are not up to par," he said, which translates to a negative message: "If you're not sending them to a magnet, you're not caring about your kids enough."

Hannam's year in New Zealand is a way to address that, by making Airport Heights the best school possible.

The demographics are similar in New Zealand, with large Asian and Samoan populations, and swapping Maori for Alaska Native, but New Zealand has made more progress in addressing the cultural needs of its diverse schools.

In Alaska, Native language immersion is an option in some schools, especially in rural areas, and there is a Native Culture Charter School in Anchorage. But in New Zealand, indigenous language immersion is available to all Maori children.

Linda Hogg, a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, said schools have tracks for Maori language, with a Maori perspective on other subjects, or students can attend immersion schools, called Kura Kaupapa Maori, which are completely oriented to their culture.

"These schools are growing young people who have knowledge of their culture," she said. "They're growing young people with amazing confidence, who are ready to be leaders."

Hannam will visit schools, work with librarians, and study with Hogg. Her goal is to develop a plan to make her own library a place where students feel at home in their culture and to bring back ideas for other Anchorage educators.

Teaching children from a background you do not share is a challenge. Hannam tries to think about how her library looks to a Hmong child from an oral culture, whose parents perhaps had little formal education.

The Hmong were an agrarian people exiled from Laos due to their support for the American military in the Vietnam War.

If a student from that world enjoys the library, the experience could contribute to principal Webb's goal of making the school a "Dream Big Academy."

He wants to expose every child to the kind of special lessons gifted children receive in other schools. That could help expand their images of themselves and boost Airport Heights Elementary for the whole community.

"You can't dream of a future that you don't even know exists," Hannam said. "So a lot of what I do in the library is expose them to more of the world."

Soon, she will be seeing more of the world herself, and bringing that knowledge home from Alaska's down-under twin.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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