The school in Gambell serves about 200 students from preschool to 12th grade in a prefab building with two wings of classrooms, a gym, and trophy cases full of ivory carvings, traditional clothing, and other Native art and tools. Last September, the first graders were taking a snack break with their teacher, LaRee Eldridge. "How many went berry picking this weekend?" she asked, as the children munched on goldfish crackers. Half of them raised hands.
"And how many saw the shark?" More hands shot up, and the children began to talk over each other as they described their sightings of a dead shark that had drawn much of the village to the shore. One boy announced that his father had also shown him a polar bear track. Eldridge asked whether sharks and polar bears were living or non-living things. The children clamored to answer, jostling each other as they waved their hands in the air.
When the break ended, the children returned to their desks, and the mood shifted. They pulled science textbooks out of their desks, and Eldridge directed them to page 14. Pencils twirled and heads lolled onto desks. A book fell to the floor. For the next 10 minutes, Eldridge struggled to regain the children's attention. As she shushed the chatter, a little girl read out loud from the book in a halting whisper: "Non-living things were never alive. Non-living things do not change on their own." After the books were put away, a student muttered, "That wasn't so bad."
Eldridge is in her second year at the school, having previously served as a teacher's aide in Savoonga. She later reflected on the lesson with frustration. The curriculum, she said, is a frequent obstacle to engaging her students because "it's not really pertinent." There's often a discrepancy between "what they see in books and what's around them," she said. In the textbook's unit on habitats, she pointed out, the Arctic isn't even mentioned; she plans to create her own lessons on the tundra.
The No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001 under President George W. Bush, raised an outcry for its unprecedented pressure on minority communities. Struggling schools were forced to keep scores rising or face restructuring, but critics complained that there was too little attention on the schools' individual needs. The backlash in Native communities has been especially intense. "Everybody is in the same box," Debra Forkner, principal of Gambell's school, said of the law. "There's not a consideration for what the real world is like, especially in a place like this."
Rob Picou, the superintendent of the Bering Strait schools, which include those on St. Lawrence, added that the law has decimated funding for subjects that motivated his students: vocational education, art, and culture.
Even math and reading teachers don't always find it most effective to teach straight from the textbook. With the help of Yupik elders, Jerry Lipka, an education professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has created a math program that incorporates Native culture. One lesson draws on the elders' expertise in preserving salmon.
"We had elders build a fish rack," he said. "We videotaped it and talked with the elders and made one of our first math modules." The lesson covered concepts like perimeter, angles, area, and the relationships between the measures of a rectangle. Students who participated in the lesson scored much higher on a geometry test than their peers who were taught using a traditional curriculum.
But partly because of the demands of the SIG program, the Gambell and Savoonga schools have stripped their curriculum down to the bare necessities, with the time spent on reading and math doubled to two long blocks each day. In Savoonga, a class on Yupik language and culture was cancelled--in part, administrators said, because not enough students signed up to justify the cost of the teacher. "If you're going to evaluate a school on strictly academics, then you have to drop something," the principal, Bobby Bolen, explained.
Instead, the schools have adopted programs to improve test scores, including Success for All, which has a track record of raising scores but which also requires teachers to read from a script. In one Savoonga classroom, a second-year teacher rapidly read a story from the curriculum about a con man who sold faulty mops. The students yelled responses to questions when the teacher snapped his fingers: Who sold the mops? Snap. The con man sold the mops! The teacher's energy kept the students engaged, but there was no time to discuss the story's characters or its unusual plot.
Striking a culturally appropriate note in St. Lawrence schools might be easier for Native teachers. But although nearly every classroom includes a Yupik teacher's aide, all of the administrators and head teachers at both schools are white. Many were recruited from the lower 48 and are new to the job and the culture; the teacher turnover rate has reached 50 percent in some years, according to administrators. But given the low rate of college attendance in the villages, finding locals equipped for the job is difficult.
The Obama administration, vowing to replace No Child Left Behind, is issuing waivers from the law's requirements to states like Alaska as long as they agree to meet other targets. But the focus on standardized testing and the core subjects of reading and math isn't likely to ease. Under Obama's SIG program, many educators say the pressure to perform well on tests has only increased. "There's a finite timeline for improvement," said Sue Johnson, the coordinator for school improvement in Bering Strait.
The decision to double down on math and reading seems to be helping in some respects. The Success for All Foundation highlights the achievements of Gambell and Savoonga schools: In Savoonga, proficiency rates on state reading tests have risen from 9 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2011. In Gambell, reading proficiency rates over the same period of time have risen from 20 percent to 43 percent.
But graduation and attendance rates have decreased over the same time period. Administrators say the federal requirement to extend the school day and year makes school even less enticing for students like Wagner who help support their families. Truancy is a constant problem. In 2012, attendance hovered around 85 percent at both schools. Nationally, the rate is about 94 percent. According to an elementary teacher in Gambell, students who get frustrated in her class often get up and walk home. Last September, a father brought his elementary-age son to the front office of the Savoonga school to sign in for the day an hour late. Apparently annoyed when the secretary scolded him for tardiness, the father walked out again, son in tow.
The Obama Administration has argued that the key to reaching disadvantaged students, whatever their culture, is basic: good teaching. To that end, they've promoted more rigorous evaluations, based partly on student test scores, to weed out the good from the bad. But many teachers in St. Lawrence, including the best ones, worry the focus on tests could stifle their creativity and inhibit their ability to make lessons meaningful for local students.
When I first met Wagner, he was huddled in a hallway composing a rap song with his friend, Herbert Kiyuklook, and another student. His science teacher, Kristina Sieff, had divided the class into small groups and assigned each a set of vocabulary words to define for the rest of the class. Wagner and his friends begged to write a rap about their words: astronomy, meteorology, biology, and geology. Sieff told them to go for it. After recording and rehearsing the rap in front of Sieff, Herbert, whose girlfriend had recently had a baby, enthused, "School is the only freedom I get."
Down the hallway, Scott Herrmann, a math teacher who used to work at Hewlett-Packard, bounced around his classroom as his students laughed, leaned back in their chairs, and occasionally let out loud belches. The lesson was fast-paced, as Herrmann peppered his students with questions about the order of operations. Whenever "the old man with the white hair," as his students call him in Yupik, pretended to be confused about whether to do parentheses or exponents first, his students waved their hands in the air. They ran to the front of the room to work out problems on the board, beaming when they got it right, often with the help of their peers. When the bell signaled the end of class, students were reluctant to go. As she packed her bag, one student murmured, "Math is fun!"
Federal intervention has benefits. The SIG program has provided schools with more money to spend on teacher training and technology, and expectations for students and teachers have risen. "Before we got the federal thing, our school didn't care about education," Marina, the Gambell valedictorian, said. "Now, a lot of kids are actually learning."
But locals are understandably protective of their autonomy, and eager to demonstrate that knowledge and achievement are a part of their heritage. Marie Tozier, who home-schools her seven children in Nome, challenged the notion that schools and Native culture are antagonistic to each other. The problem in her eyes is that Westerners have assumed this is the case--that education is something that's not valued in Native culture. "I think about when my grandmother taught me to cut fish," Tozier said. "It wasn't do it once and I'll give you a grade. It was hours of practice until you get it right."
Picou, the Bering superintendent, has gone on a listening tour to find out what locals want from their schools. He recognizes many of his students won't make it to college, but hopes some might be enticed to try distance learning courses and that the rest can learn key skills in high school for the jobs Alaska provides--whether in fishing, oil, the arts, or entrepreneurship. "There's a distinction between an education and school. Education is what Native people have been doing for their children since the beginning of time. School has been what has been imposed on people from outside," he said. "We need to get in the business of education again."