In Remote Alaskan Villages, Teachers Struggle to Make School Meaningful

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The government's one-size-fits-all requirements may be too stifling for kids who spend much of their time hunting whales and gathering berries.

girls-alaska-large.jpg Two fifth-grade girls sit outside their school in Gambell, one of two villages on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island. (Sarah Garland)

Wagner Iworrigan, a 17-year-old high school senior on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska, knows a lot about biology, meteorology, and math. He's an expert at telling whether a walrus is too sick to eat, if the weather is likely to turn dangerous, and the best angle for throwing a harpoon at a surfacing bowhead whale.

On a recent unseasonably warm day last fall, he skipped class to join his uncle on their boat. With nets and hooks, they motored through the choppy gray waves of the Bering Sea until the lights of their village, Savoonga, seemed farther than the stars above. They hoped to catch a seven-foot halibut or plump seal to feed the rest of the family: Wagner's two younger sisters, a younger brother, four cousins, and a grandfather. All 10 of them share a three-bedroom house.

Wagner might make a good scientist, but he's not planning on going to college. He feels responsible for his siblings--his mother died of a brain tumor and his father lives in another village--and college is "so far from home." He's also unclear about what he would do with a degree: "We don't have a lot of jobs here." After graduating, he plans to become a commercial fisherman to "make some good money" at one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S.

Many students on St. Lawrence--a remnant of the land bridge that spanned the Bering Strait thousands of years ago with a current population of less than 1,400--say they want to go to college. But half of them drop out of high school, and only 2 percent graduate from college. The benefits of a degree can seem remote here. Families live a subsistence lifestyle, hunting walruses, seals, and whales in the spring, and gathering berries in the summer. The largest employer is the school system (according to the census, 37 percent of workers in Savoonga are in education); otherwise, there are only a handful of jobs in fishing, oil, and the airlines that connect the island to the mainland. More than a quarter of adults are unemployed.

Across the entire country, one of the most intractable problems in public education is how to fix Native American schools. Beginning in 1928, the federal government has issued scathing reports about the state of Native education and intervened periodically with new programs and reforms. None of them have made much difference. The high school dropout rate of Native students is about 12 percent, higher than that of blacks (8 percent) and of whites (5 percent). Only 39 percent of those who go to college complete a college degree in six years compared to 62 percent of whites and 69 percent of Asians. And while Hispanic and black students have been gaining ground in math and reading, scores for Native students have stagnated over the past decade. In the case of Alaska Natives, they've fallen.

Last year, the Obama administration declared a crisis in Native schools and promised new ideas to improve them. In October, the Department of Education announced a $2 million for a nationwide pilot program to help tribal agencies exert more control over their schools. "Tribal leaders, teachers, and parents are best suited to identify and address the needs of their children," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, when announcing the small grant. "Tribal communities deserve to play a greater role in providing American Indian and Alaska Native students with the tools and support they need to be successful in school and beyond." The program is divvying up the $2 million through competitive grants to tribal agencies and states that propose new ways to improve Native schools.

Despite the high-minded talk, Natives and educators worry the government is repeating past mistakes, pushing top-down reforms that educators say could make outcomes worse. Another program that has received far more resources than the fund to help tribal agencies is Obama's School Improvement Grant (SIG) initiative, which has funneled more than $3 billion to the nation's lowest-performing schools in exchange for specific changes in how the schools are run.

In contrast to the program to help tribes improve their schools, the SIG program has a list of reforms it requires schools to conform to, including hiring new principals and overhauling everything from the length of the school day to how teachers are evaluated. Native students are disproportionately represented in SIG schools, with about 30,000 enrolled.

Wagner's school in Savoonga and another in Gambell--the two villages on St. Lawrence--have received $1 million each under the SIG program. Combined, it's as much as the federal government is spending in total nationwide on the tribal education program. Their success will be measured largely by how students perform on standardized tests.

"We want our children to achieve academically, but we need to be able to design programs that deal with the challenges they face day-to-day," Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, said. "The federal government is not going to understand what those challenges are."

Those challenges are profound, and most pronounced on the island: How should teachers make school relevant to kids who spend much of their time hunting and gathering berries, with limited exposure to people other than their white teachers who have achieved academic success?

Even though many traditions are still strong, some in St. Lawrence worry that sending children away for higher education could endanger the Yupik language and culture. Already, the younger generation is losing its fluency and grasp of skills like sewing, walrus-ivory carving, and fish-cutting. Can the community raise test scores and send more students to university, without sacrificing its desire to preserve Native culture and language?

In return for the SIG money, the Obama administration wants the schools in St. Lawrence to follow a list of reforms outlined by officials in Washington, D.C. But what those schools really need, locals say, is for the White House to follow through on its promise to listen to what Natives want for their schools, instead of continuing the tradition of telling them what's best.

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The Yupik Eskimos have inhabited St. Lawrence Island continuously for the last 2,000 years, though the first people to touch these lands passed through about 13,000 years earlier from Russia on their way to North America. The island is closer to Siberia than to the Alaskan mainland, and some islanders maintain ties to relatives in Russia, referring to the rest of Alaska and the lower 48 as "America."

The island once housed nearly a dozen villages, but in 1880, famine wiped out much of the population; Western whalers had depleted the sea mammals that comprise much of the Yupik diet. After a hungry winter, a contagious disease killed 1,000 inhabitants, two thirds of the remaining population.

Despite the near-fatal brush with Western culture, the Yupiks rebounded, though only two villages remain. Savoonga and Gambell huddle next to the water on the island's north shore. In summer, meadows of grassy tundra stretch from snow-capped ridges to stony beaches; no trees grow, due to the permafrost. Children help their parents gather delicacies from the tundra, including moss berries, salmon berries, and plant roots. In the winter, the sun disappears for months and relentless snow buries houses, schools, and roads. Polar bears and walruses arrive on ice floes. In the spring, men ride out in 16-foot boats to hunt gray, beluga, and bowhead whales using harpoons rigged with small explosives.

No roads connect Savoonga and Gambell. A ticket off the island on a bush plane costs more than $400, a week's earnings for many islanders. (Nearly half of families in Savoonga make less than $25,000 a year.) Savoonga has a fishery that provides 14 jobs. The only retail business in Gambell is the general store, where food and cleaning supplies cost triple what they would on the mainland. The nearest hospital is across 150 miles of water in Nome, the closest town on the mainland. There are no hotels; when I visited last fall, I slept on the floor of the school library and in a spare room at the principal's house. The sense of community is strong. When a whale is killed, the houses and school empty as everyone races to the beach to take a share of the meat. As Wagner put it, "We're all one big family because we're so isolated."

For decades, the government sent American Indian and Alaska Native students to boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into Western society. They were forbidden to speak their own languages and forced to do hours of hard labor each day in exchange for the chance to study. Many were malnourished.

Small communities in Alaska didn't have high schools until the 1980s, so children who wanted a diploma had to attend boarding school, where instruction took place in English. "What if beings from another planet came to the U.S. and we had to immediately learn their language and we had to be just like them?" said Barbara Amarok, a former schoolteacher who works for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks organizing cultural training for new teachers. "That's exactly what happened here." As a result, many parents and grandparents feel alienated and even hostile toward public schools.

The old ways are inevitably changing. There is less sea ice in the Arctic, so polar bears and walruses visit the island less frequently. The children drink soda and eat macaroni-and-cheese in addition to the traditional diet of fish, sea mammals, and berries. They ride snow machines along gravel roads, instead of walking. And in the evening, they prefer playing video games and watching satellite television to listening to their elders tell stories.

Rates of alcohol addiction, suicide, and teenage pregnancy are skyrocketing, according to locals. Last year, two of the 14 seniors at the Horgarth Kingeekuk Sr. Memorial School killed themselves. Alcohol is banned on the island, but villagers make their own home brew, and some sell it to minors. At the Hugo T. Apatiki School in Gambell last year, the valedictorian, Marina Koonooka, says she had a miscarriage. She said that kids, even motivated students like herself, are drawn into trouble because "there's not much to do here but play basketball."

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."

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Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the forthcoming book Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation.

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