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."