Kids can experience mental health issues and kids spend a lot of time at school. So what happens at school when a student needs extra help - for a temporary mental health issue or a long-term diagnosis? How do schools respond and are they a place to find help? Parents, when should you talk to the school about a child's difficulties - is it a phase, is it affecting academics?
IN-STUDIO GUESTS: Joining us from Alaska's mental healthcare community are two women who work in education.
• Bonnie Thurston is the Director of Intensive School & Community Based Services at Denali Family Services. Bonnie spent 16 years in rural Alaska as an educator, principal and administrator for the village of Igiugig. In her position at Denali Family Services she oversees more than 50 behavioral health professionals in Anchorage, Palmer and Wasilla. She says she and her staff offer quality, wrap-around services to children and families in need in the Southcentral region.
• Sally Donaldson is a middle school counselor at D’zantikiheeni Middle School in Juneau. She’s also the contact person the for the Juneau School District’s Students/Families in Transition program. Sally has been a mental health professional in a school setting for many years and she’s the former president of the Alaska Association of School Counselors.
LINKS FROM THIS PROGRAM:
LINKS FOR FURTHER LEARNING:
WHERE TO FIND HELP:
- Helping Alaskan Students with FASD - One problem some teachers and school officials often mistake as a mental health issue is actually physical disability. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder occurs in people who were prenatally exposed to alcohol. Alcohol impacts how the brain is built and many of the effects look similar to behavior problems, like willful disobedience. Contributor Anne Hillman learned about how communities and schools around the state are helping kids with FASD succeed.
- A Rural School District Perspective - Alaska’s small communities and schools may have some advantages when it comes to looking out for how kids are doing emotionally - people know each other and can see when things aren’t going so well. But they also have extra challenges - like fewer specialized staff members to handle a crisis, a lot of alcohol abuse and family trauma. Contributor Jessica Cochran spoke with Scammon Bay assistant principal Harley Sundown about how schools in the Lower Yukon School District try to meet the mental health needs of their students with programs like the Natural Helpers.
- Tweens Talk Bullying & Mental Health - Being bullied at school can have an impact on a student’s mental well-being and their ability to concentrate. Contributor Jessica Cochran visited the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage to speak with some seventh grade students about their experiences.
Listen to the whole series here.
Report no. 10: Families and students discuss the pros & cons of living and learning away from home in modern Alaska.
Reporting from: Bethel & Sitka, Alaska
HOST INTRO: This time of year, many students at Alaska’s boarding schools are heading home for winter break. Boarding schools have a long and complicated history for Alaska Natives; some blame them for loss of indigenous languages, and some students suffered abuse at schools. But these days, plenty of families choose boarding school as the best option to educate their kids. In the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska”, Angela Denning-Barnes speaks with some of those families.
Mt. Edgecumbe High School junior Auna Springer reads a book during lunch in the B.J. McGillis gym at the state-run boarding school. Springer, from Bethel, is the third child in her family to attend Edgecumbe. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)
[Ambient sound - sewing...]
[Regina Johnson] “I am working on my daughter’s ruff... my oldest daughter, Ashley.”
Regina Johnson sits at the kitchen table stitching together a long strip of hide with shiny black hair.
[Regina] “This is actually a Russian racoon. First time working with it, first time cutting it out, which I did last night so I’m actually pretty excited.”
Regina is hoping to get it done for her daughter when she comes home for Christmas. She’s a Senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka. Regina’s only son, Austin, is there too.
It’s about a thousand miles from Bethel as the crow flies, with no connecting roads. But Regina knows her children are in good hands because that’s where she want to school. She left Pitkas Point at age 14. The village has about 150 residents.
[Regina] “The school was so small in Pitka’s Point and I wanted to further my education.”
She says she not only got a better education in the classroom, but also learned to be responsible and how to take care of herself.
[Regina] “And as far as home goes, yes, you have to do the laundry, pack the water, help do the wood. It was just totally different where you had to learn to live with other people that you weren’t so used to living with at home.”
These days, it’s a little quieter at home with her two oldest children gone to boarding school. There are just two younger ones left at home now.
Regina and Don Johnson hold a picture of their family inside their Bethel home. (Photo by Angela Denning-Barnes/KYUK)
[Ambient sound, man and child voices: “In the...in what... ahhhh, you mistake?”]
Sitting at the same table is her husband, Don Johnson, helping their 5-year-old daughter with a word game. When she’s 14, she’ll move to Sitka too.
[Don Johnson] “All of my kids are going to go. It’s a no brainer for me.”
For Don, it’s a family affair. He went to the boarding school as did his six siblings and his parents. Back then it was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Don had a long way to move from their coastal village of Emmonak on the Bering Sea, but he says the quality of education was worth it.
[Don] “There’s a lot of students that attend Mt. Edgecumbe High School and become really successful in their lives. Look at me, in high school, I knew who I wanted to be and that was become a pilot. So ever since graduating, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
For the Johnson family, being successful doesn’t mean leaving culture behind. They still live in their home region; the kids go to fish camp at Pitkas Point every summer, and moose hunting over break – so they keep up on those subsistence skills, too.
[Ashley Johnson] “My name is Ashley Johnson and I am a Senior from Bethel... I want to become a veterinarian. I’m going to be helping animals.”
Ashley Johnson sits in the gym lobby at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. She’s in jeans, tennis shoes, and a black jacket, with long dark hair. She says she always knew she would go to boarding school as a freshman but the transition away from family wasn’t easy.
[Ashley] “At first no one’s going to be there for you. And you’re going to be starting out in somewhere so new, and you’re going to be lost. And this, coming to a boarding school is going to help you cope with that and it’s going to help you try to build up your self confidence and everything else like that.”
Ashley Johnson, right, walks with a friend from the B.J. McGillis gym at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, to buildings on the upper campus, atop a nearby hill. Johnson is a senior who lives in Bethel, and one of many in her family to have attended the state-run boarding school. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)
For Mt. Edgecumbe Junior Auna Springer the decision to leave Bethel for boarding school wasn’t exactly set in stone. Two of her older siblings went, but three didn’t.
[Auna Springer] “...and in middle school I was kind of like wishy-washy about it. And by the time I hit the 8th grade, I was like, ‘you know what, might as well go.’ It was kind of a hard decision to make because I was kind of weighing my options. I even had a little pro and con paper you know. MHS or BRHS.”
The pros won out and Auna’s been at boarding school the last two and a half years. She says she likes the busy environment:
[Auna] “If we weren’t busy we’d probably be getting into trouble or something. I mean, that’s the plus side of it. Like you have really strict consequences if you are doing something you shouldn’t be keeps you out of trouble which is really good.”
In Bethel, Auna’s dad, Mark Springer, believes the education is top notch. Regularly, Auna travels by ferry for sporting events and she has access to the University of Alaska Southeast right next door. Another of his daughters learned Japanese at Edgecumbe and then visited the country. Mark says these opportunities are a kind of a trade for having his children leave home early. In the school year from August to May, they usually return home only once, during Christmas break. He doesn’t visit often either because it’s a full day flight and up to $900 round trip.
[Mark Springer] “...and that can be hard for some families, it’s not always easy for us. It is a long time to be away from your child.”
[Ambient sound - stitching...]
Regina Johnson agrees that’s tough, but she keeps close to her kids; She tries to talk them through their tough times by phone – they call or text or Skype every day.
[Regina] "Definitely, we communicate multiple times a day."
But mostly she sees them becoming more confident in themselves, more willing to take on challenges. She hasn’t lost that drive either. She says after all her kids graduate, she just might try to go back school herself.
With help from Ed Ronco in Sitka, I’m Angela Denning-Barnes in Bethel.
This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.
Report no. 9: Learning in two languages - Yup'ik and English - gives these rural students a double advantage at school, life.
Reporting from: Napaskiak, AK (pop. 428)
HOST INTRO: Early in our series Being Young in Rural Alaska from the producers of Kids These Days, we learned about efforts to re-introduce indigenous languages through school programs. At the Lower Kuskokwim School District, they have a different challenge: figuring out the best way to teach reading and writing to kids who are already living in two languages. LKSD is the largest Rural Education Attendance Area in the State of Alaska, encompassing a landmass roughly the size of West Virginia. It is in the heart of Yup’ik country. The district employs 325 teachers in 23 communities, and one quarter of the certified teachers are Yup’ik, the greatest percentage of indigenous educators of any district in Alaska. The district has begun rolling out a new method for teaching its bilingual students: elementary students are now taught reading, writing, social studies and science using what is called the dual language model. Sophie Evan has more.
First graders in Napaskiak.
SOPHIE EVAN: LKSD’s mission statement says in part, that their students will be bilingual and successful in both Yup’ik and American English languages and cultures. The LKSD Yup’ik language specialists map out the curriculum in Yup’ik mirroring the English teaching and evaluation materials. Veronica Winkelman, or Atan’, is one of three full time specialists.
[Veronica Winkelman/Atan’] "It’s not the curriculum it’s the delivery method.”
Atan’ says the dual language model has to be demonstrated and practiced by the adults in the school equally.
[Atan’] "We’re asking English speaking teachers to take Yugtun classes and to learn Yugtun phrases.”
The high school students from Chefornak have recorded Yup’ik phrases and posted them onto LKSD’s website for the English speaking teachers, directions like, “please line up," "take your paper out," or "it’s time for lunch”.
[Sound of Yup'ik phrase from LKSD's website]
The teaching model’s main component is to have the students work in pairs on their activity or practice worksheets. Working together is said to encourage active learning for all students. Student comprehension is then checked three separate times. Yup’ik Language Specialist, Atan’...
[Atan’] "So when you go into a dual language classroom you will see kids with their pair.”
[Natural sound of two girls working together.]
Rita Joekay a first year kindergarten teacher in Napaskiak.
[Joekay speaking in Yup’ik explaining, how she uses the dualanguage model with narration over.]
Joekay says teachers use the language of the student as the primary language of instruction, so for example when students are speaking English as they enter kindergarten the main language of instruction will be English for reading and writing. The same applies to the Yup’ik speaking students.
Joekay's bilingual first graders.
The first test of the method is for students to be able to write a full page for Yup’ik learners, and a half a page for English learners in each respective language. Again, Atan’...
[Atan’] "Not only do you want the kids to know what you’ve taught them but you want them to be able to apply their learning in a different format, so it’s like deeper learning and deeper practice.”
Napaskiak School Principal Talbert Bentley say they’ve been using the dual language delivery method since last year.
[Talbert Bentley] "Our teachers have really bought into it, and they’re really going gang busters implementing it.”
In the dual language learning model, students continue to learn reading, writing, science and social studies in both language into the sixth grade.
Russian Orthodox Priest Father Nicholai also serves as Napaskiak’s chairman of the local advisory school board.
[Father Nicholai speaking in Yup'ik; narration over translating into English] "This is what we tell our students, our world is changing, and we need to learn the western ways, our parents were forced to learn the English language and it is important to know English in today’s world, we also continue to teach the Yup’ik ways of survival in our own language as the two are connected.”
He says the end goal is to prepare students, like his own, to be grounded in the Yup’ik culture and to succeed in the Western world as well.
In Napaskiak, I’m Sophie Evan.
This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.
LAST WEEK'S STORY in our Being Young in Rural Alaska reporting series addressed the need for more childcare in some rural Alaska hubs and towns. In other rural Alaska villages, jobs are scarce and unemployment is high, so there may not be much demand for full-time childcare. But there is still a need for early education programs, to make sure children are ready for school when the time comes.
Rural Cap operates Head Start programs in many Alaska communities: some are half-day or full-day programs, and some are home visit programs. During home visits, Head Start staff watch how kids are developing and reaching milestones, play games with them, and answer questions for parents. In those communities, Head Start also hosts “group socials” to get all the families together.
Jessica Cochran attended a group social in Saint Mary’s and spoke with program manager Bay Johnson and some of the parents there.
Report no. 7: A lack of early childcare in rural Alaska is spawning creative and cultural solutions.
Reporting from: Barrow and Bethel, Alaska
HOST INTRO: Finding quality, affordable childcare for young children can be a challenge anywhere in Alaska. It’s especially difficult in rural Alaska’s hub communities where the cost of living is high and space is often hard to find. The lack of childcare becomes a factor in attracting professionals to jobs at regional health and other organizations. In the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days, Anne Hillman takes a look at how some communities are trying to meet the challenge.
Image via lksd.org
A Busy Bees classroom in action in Bethel, AK...
ANNE HILLMAN: At Ilisagvik College in Barrow, president Pearl Brower tries to concentrate on an interview, but she’s a little distracted:
[Sound of baby... "Do you want to go sit with auntie?"]
Her 10-month old daughter is crawling into the hallway; she had a babysitter problem this morning:
[Pearl Brower] "We don’t have a formalized daycare here so that makes it very difficult because its all personal caregivers."
Brower is not alone. April Blevins struggled to find childcare when she first moved to Bethel, where there are currently no licensed childcare facilities for children under three.
[April Blevins] "And when I went to visit babysitters, you would see up to 12 children with one provider and in my mind it was just not a safe, or an environment I would want my child in."
So a cousin came to live with her.
[Blevins] "And then the following year, me and about four other friends hired a nanny through a nanny service and she came up and we provided housing and she kept our five children."
Later, Blevins did find home care she was happy with.
Marcey Bish, childcare program manager for the state, says the biggest hurdle for many providers getting licensed is background checks: every person living in the home must pass them, not just the primary care provider.
[Marcey Bish] "So a lot times there’s barriers that come up as part of those checks that do not allow somebody or a family member to move forward with the licensing process."
And many people do home day care for only a few years, while their children are young. Child care centers struggle to be able to pay decent wages; staff turnover is high and it can be hard to find a qualified person to be the facility administrator under licensing rules. Stephanie Berglund is director of thread, Alaska’s childcare referral agency; she says it’s not just a rural problem. Statewide, most parents can’t afford to pay what it takes to run an independent, quality early learning childcare facility.
Those are statewide issues. Even in urban areas, the best childcare programs are subsidized by employers. That’s how April Blevins is trying to meet the need in Bethel; she works for the Lower Kuskokwim School district and manages its “Busy Bees” child care program for children ages 3-5. School district employees have preference for spots at the school, and the waiting list is long. LKSD is opening a second facility, for children as young as 6 weeks, and expects it to be full right away. The staff is employed by the district, so they have better benefits than an independent facility could offer. And they have donated space:
[Blevins] "If it hadn’t been for the Bethel alternative school offering us a space, it would have been difficult for us to expand."
Families in Barrow and other North Slope communities are grappling with two problems: a lack of childcare facilities and a loss of language. So staff at Ilisagvik College created a combined solution - the Language Nest, an early childhood language immersion program.
[Classroom sound - singing Row Your Boat in Inupiaq.]
Teacher Tuuqlak Diaz sings “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in Inupiaq in a room that looks like a typical preschool, except every bit of decoration, from the toy caribou to the dolls in the tent, reflect life on the North Slope.
[Tuuqlak Diaz] “The language, it’s going to be instilled in their hearts in the beginning and it’s going to go along as they become adults.”
The Language Nest just opened and eventually will accept students ages 0 to 3. While at the school the kids will only listen to and speak Inupiaq.
[Martha Stackhouse] “You just say simple things, simple commands that you usually use in the home and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
That’s teacher Martha Stackhouse. She says that by teaching the children Inupiaq with words that they would typically use at home, they will also teach parents the language. And kids will only be accepted to the program if their parents commit to being involved in the classroom at least 8 hours per month.
Martha Stackhouse, Tuuqlak Diaz & Mary Sage
Program director Mary Sage says the Language Nest is part of Ilisagvik’s larger Inupiaq Early Learning Degree.
[Mary Sage] “Under the business track there will be some courses to help them establish their own language nest in their home anywhere on the North Slope.”
Future teachers can earn school credit by working in the current Language Nest, and the college will teach how to get state daycare licenses. The North Slope Borough is also working to address the need, with a childcare task force looking at re-opening a borough-run facility. Across the state, as new health care centers and school buildings are built, advocates are pushing to add to the plans, to make space for the care and education of the very youngest Alaskans.
With help from Jessica Cochran, I’m Anne Hillman.
This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.
Report no. 6: An alternative high school concept is helping rural youth graduate.
Reporting from: Bethel, Alaska (pop. 6,219)
Alaska’s high school graduation rate lags behind the nation - and Alaska Natives are more likely to drop out of school than others. In rural Alaska, high school students who have their sights set on graduation may not be sure what to do next. In the next installment of our “Being Young in Rural Alaska” series, from the producers of Kids These Days, reporter Mark Arehart looks at an idea designed to keep kids in high school, by giving them a glimpse of their possible futures.
(image via Andrea Pokrzywinski/ACE Academy)
A student at the Aviation Career Education Academy
[natural sound: bell, kids chatting]
MARK AREHART: Usually this sound [bell] means it’s time to pack up and move on to the next class.
Not these kids, though. They are prepping for the ACT college admissions, and they work straight through the bell. They come from villages across the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta to Bethel for a special program, one that’s not just for kids with straight A’s.
[Daniel Inman] “I was actually failing high school for my first two years. So this is a great was for me to get started again.”
That’s Daniel Inman, he’s a junior from Toksook Bay. He and his classmates are enrolled in accelerated math and science classes, aimed at preparing them for college and eventual careers.
[Daniel Inman] “Right now I’m taking a full year of chemistry and algebra two in half a year.”
Not all village schools can offer the upper level science and math classes students need for some college programs; so this program – called RANSEP - has students split their time between their home villages, Bethel, and a summer session at UAA.
RANSEP students learn how to build computers
For the Lower Kuskokwim School District, the college prep program is at the center of a larger idea: the hybrid high school.
It’s an effort that brings village students to Bethel for intense learning segments, ranging from a week to an entire semester, then sends them back to their villages better prepared for the next step. Assistant Superintendent Dan Walker.
[Dan Walker] “The whole idea of a hybrid high school would be to find ways to have a positive effect on graduation rate.”
And Walker says to do that, schools need to keep kids engaged.
[Walker] “It’s how do we go about creating that environment, where kids… they want to be at school. So it’s not the only thing, we have to have really high standards in reading, writing, math, science, social studies all of those things. But what we’re finding is that we also have to have these other highly engaging, motivating activities for kids that keep them excited about school. And that’s the whole idea behind this.”
[Plane assembly sound.]
Another branch of LKSD’s hybrid high-school is the Aviation Career Education Academy, or ACE, a special week-long program that also brings kids in to Bethel from villages across the region - kids like Bruce Simons, a 7th grader from Toksook Bay.
[Bruce Simons] “I want to be a pilot when I grow up like my dad. So I can explore Alaska."
Bruce and other students jump in the cockpit of an old plane used for instruction at the local flight school hangar.
The ACE program is giving kids a chance to delve into how aviation works, both in the classroom and in the field. They are learning about everything from the right conditions for flight…
[Simons] “If there’s turbulence you can’t fly and look at the forecast before you take off.”
… to how to actually put the wings on a plane.
(image via Andrea Pokrzywinski/ACE Academy)
[Andrea Pokrzywinski] “We have 23 students this year.”
Andrea Pokrzywinski directs the Ace program.
[Pokrzywinski] “And we had well over 84 applications, so lots of interest.”
She says students were picked based on the essays they wrote, not just the grades that they’ve made.
Again, Dan Walker of LKSD:
[Walker] “Aviation is huge here in the YK Delta and we’ve got lots of kids who are interested in aviation careers.”
And that’s the reason Walker says the Hybrid High School has been a success; it gives kids that have dreams of growing up and being a doctor or a pilot the tools to learn how to do that.
Kids like Daniel Inman.
[Inman] “It’s given me my motivation back. It’s made it so I want to succeed and I want to get to college. And I want good things for my life again.”
Similar programs to LKSD’s Hybrid High School are in place in Nenana and in the Nome and Bering Straights school districts.
Reporting from Bethel, I’m Mark Arehart.
Report no. 4: How one school district successfully combined culture + academics
Reporting from: Barrow, Alaska (pop. ~4000)
[Alaska News Nightly host intro] It’s hard to get excited about school when you’re reading a typical textbook written in the Midwest, and you live in a place with no trees, no sidewalks, and no elevators. That’s why educators on the North Slope are making a change. In the next installment of our “Being Young in Rural Alaska” series from the Producers of Kids These Days!, reporter Anne Hillman looks at how the North Slope Borough School District is revamping the way they teach to help kids connect to academics and culture all at the same time.
ANNE HILLMAN: When Robin Stockton started teaching math in the North Slope Borough 16 years ago, she did it like everyone in the Lower 48, with examples like the arc of a foul ball to teach parabolas.
[Stockton: “They’d have it for one day but then they wouldn’t. It only made sense in my four walls. When you can’t apply it to anything, it doesn’t stick.”]
AH: So she made the math lessons apply to her student’s lives.
[Stockton: “Tying quad functions to whale bomb or to a jumpers height, it makes sense, it sticks, that’s the important part.”]
AH: The problems with standard teaching examples don’t start with abstract math; it starts with the books kids read in elementary school. Kids can’t relate to climbing trees or feeding chickens in a big red barn - those things don’t exist here. They know more about riding snow machines over the tundra and butchering whales with their families.
And that’s the motivation behind the North Slope Borough School District’s new teaching curriculum. It systemically incorporates Inupiat culture into every subject while still meeting all of the state educational standards.
North Slope Borough in red. image source
AH: School Board President Debby Edwardson says the board and the community have been trying to incorporate Inupiat culture for years.
[Edwardson: “What we had done before was create lots of units in the classroom. What we’re doing now is completely regenerating our system with an Inupiat base. We’ve never done that before.”]
AH: The first step was to talk to all eight of the communities in the district and find out what they wanted their kids to know and be like when they graduated from high school. They used that to develop the Inupiat Learning Framework, which lays out the core values and ways of life that the community wants taught in their schools. Then, Robin Stockton and a team of other teachers and administrators used a proven method of curriculum development called Understanding By Design.
[Stockton: “The whole UBD process is having the end student in mind. And students being able to take the content they’ve learned in thirteen years of schooling and apply it to real world tasks.”]
The symbol of the Inupiat Learning Framework which includes 4 "realms": environmental, historical, community and individual
AH: The new system meets the state’s standards and the community’s standards in an effort to get kids more motivated and involved. And district officials say it’s working. Attendance rates are at (the highest ever) *record highs* for the alternative school, the number of office referrals at the elementary school has been cut in half, and the drop-out rate is almost halved as well.
Fifteen year old Donna Sabo says that when last year’s end-of-the-year writing prompt focused on families, it made it easier for her to show her abilities.
[Sabo: “It was a good change because we know more about it. We understand it. Better than ‘what do you know about the trees or…. I don’t know, politics'…somewhere around there.”]
AH: The culture-focused curriculum also gives students the chance to learn more about their identities, something that school didn’t used to do. Sabo says she stopped doing cultural activities because she was too busy with academics and sports.
[Sabo: “I feel like now that I’m older I made a bad decision because I didn’t continue on with my cultural…whatevers.”]
AH: Now, as the district undergoes the lengthy process of cultural integration, students won’t have to choose between culture and academics. Middle school principal Carla Seavey says it gives the students a forum for educating each other.
[Seavey: “You might think that they all have the same experiences in terms of hunting or subsistence lifestyle, but they don’t all necessarily. A lot of our kids can learn from their peers about their own culture.”]
AH: And they can also learn about other cultures. Only 60 percent of the students in Barrow come from the region. Others hail from around the world, including Samoa and the Philippines. Middle school teacher Tony Bisson says the framework helps the students connect to each other to see how they are similar.
[Bisson: “I had one boy yesterday who said ‘yeah, I’m a hunter-gatherer, we gather rice in the Philippines.’ So it just makes a connection and whether or not, its not Inupiat, but it’s still hunting and survival. You see it in all cultures.”]
AH: Inupiat communities aren’t the only ones trying to incorporate culture into their schools. The Alaska Native Knowledge Network is amassing culturally-based curriculum resources and making them available to the state’s teachers. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has developed an elementary school math series based on Yupik knowledge and culture. And in Southeast Alaska, the Sealaska Heritage Institute recently released coursework for grades six to eight - focused on Alaska Native history and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Reporting from Barrow, I’m Anne Hillman.
Report no. 3: Making Education Relevant in the Village of Saint Mary's
Reporting from: Saint Mary's, AK, pop. 500
[Alaska News Nightly host intro] From a distance, it can be hard to tell why some rural school districts seem to work better than others…why some have better test scores, higher attendance and graduation rates. In the next installment of our series “Being young in rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days, Jessica Cochran looks at one Yukon River village – and how the community works together to support the school.
JESSICA COCHRAN: The community of Saint Mary’s sits near where the Andreafsky River flows into the Yukon. It is an area of rolling hills; there are so many ribbons of water, it’s hard to tell if it’s one channel looping around, or many weaving in and out.
The village was founded when a Catholic mission was moved there in 1948; some students boarded at the school, but other families moved nearby so they could be with their kids while they went to school. When the city incorporated in 1967, it became a First Class City, so that it could have its own single-site school district.
Sunrise over Saint Mary's, a village in Western Alaska
JC: So in some ways, the importance of a good education is part of the fabric of Saint Mary’s. It takes a community-wide effort to make it happen.
[Natural sound from Yupik skills class...]
JC: In a Yupik skills class, instructor Nick Thompson is working with students on eel sticks – long pieces of wood, carved so the edges are smooth, with rows of sharpened nails running down each side.
[Thompson: "They’re on the nail part right now; this is extracurricular.... JC: "So what are the eel sticks used for?" Thompson: "Catching eels..."]
JC: He slowly swishes the stick as if in water.
[Thompson: "...through the water, back and forth, and then you pull ‘em out."]
VIDEO: Marcia Beans, a Yupik skills instructor, demonstrates how to make a toy during class
JC: One student is mending a fishing net, and others are making harpoons. The students will use these tools they have made on a series of trips, organized by the school each fall. They call them “relevant education” trips; relevant because people in Saint Mary’s live subsistence – they hunt, fish, and gather much of their food, so the skills they practice on these trips, they use with their families too. Every student, from kindergarten through 12th grade has the chance to go on at least one trip each year. Sixth grader Megan Westdahl:
[Westdahl: "Yeah we stayed overnight and we went blueberry and blackberry picking, and we picked ayaq tea, which is tundra tea, and we learned how to pick them from my classmate Simone’s mom."]
JC: These aren’t just “field trips”; students have data to collect and assignments to do in the field; a math problem involved using distances and geometry to calculate how high a tree is; science students collect different kinds of leaves and describe the terrain where they found them; there are daily writing assignments. When students return, they complete projects with the data – displaying them on posters that line the school walls. Theresa Paukan teaches 5th grade:
[Paukan: "Each student weighed their berries in ounces and in pounds and we created class graphs in Excel, and found the minimum, maximum, etc using formulas in Excel. And then we learned about how recipes are written, and we wrote one for agutak, which is Eskimo ice cream and then we followed the recipe to make agutak as a class."]
The playground at school...
JC: Younger students go on day trips; high school students might go on a four day trip to the coast, or the big fall moose hunting trip. Junior Wassilie Tinker didn’t go his 9th grade year; most anyone in the school can tell you the three requirements to participate – good grades, good attendance, good behavior. For Wassilie, it was motivation to do better. He did his first moose hunting trip as a sophomore - it was the first time he’d been so far upriver.
[Tinker: "Piemute Slough, beautiful country. Lot of trees, lots of thorns. Its hard work when you get a moose in the meadow and there’s thorns all over."]
JC: Back at school, the students butchered the moose; some is kept at school, and much is given away:
[Tinker: "One of the staff members drives around and the students give the meat to people. Feels good, not like you’re being stingy. It's better to give than receive."]
JC: It’s a back and forth. The community supports the school too. Yupik teacher Lillian Johnson explains that in the fall, residents hosts a potlatch for local students.
[Johnson: "We give a potlatch to show that we support them, to encourage them; it had started 26 or 27 years ago when a lot of our local families couldn’t afford to get supplies for their children, so the mini-potlatch became, where everybody supported everybody else."]
4th grade teacher, Phil Workman, sporting a Saint Mary's hoodie - everyone in town has one!
JC: Members of the community are also essential in making the relevant education trips happen – they are the experienced boat captains who can navigate the rivers, the ones who know where to go to find berries.
[School superintendent Dave Herbert: "The relevant instruction program has really built a sense of pride in the school, which has been there for many many years but it just kind of rekindled the pride in the community, and the students and the parent, in what a great school Saint Mary’s can be."]
JC: That’s superintendent Dave Herbert. The program began nine years ago after he started as superintendent. Previously, achievement had taken a dip, morale was low, lots of students were leaving to go to Mount Edgecumbe. Some school board members had seen other schools go on similar trips, and recalled their own trips to villages when they were students at the Catholic mission school. And the trips have helped: suspensions are down, attendance rates are up. They give new teachers the opportunity to bond with their students and engage with the community early on. But Herbert says the main focus is still on academic standards:
[Herbert: "You know we’re teaching the state of Alaska standards in all of our classrooms; that’s not negotiable. Our school board has never tried to come up with excuses for not meeting AYP (adequate yearly progress). They’ve always said we’re going to be proactive, we’re not going to come up with excuses, our kids have the ability and will perform."]
JC: It’s not perfect:
[Afcan: "I know the school has a really good reputation for being pushed into education, but there’s also a downside to everything, and I just like people to know that."]
JC: Student body president John Afcan says there is still peer pressure against being too studious, still a lot of “troubles” with alcohol and drugs. Test scores have taken a dip after a high in 2009. There are still behavior issues, and suspensions.
JC: But Afcan thinks its improving, that the relevant instruction trips help. And by most accounts, the school is doing pretty well. Two years ago a student got a full scholarship to Stanford University. Most of last year’s graduates are now in college or a vocational program. And future graduates already have some big plans, like junior Aga Thompson:
[Thompson: "I’m thinking about going to Fairbanks for one year, then go to Dartmouth and become a politician."]
JC: And that’s what the school board wants – for students to graduate with ideas for the future, options, and choices.
Reporting from Saint Mary’s, I’m Jessica Cochran.
The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.
Report no. 2: The Need for Alaska Native Teachers in Alaska's Schools
Reporting from: Juneau, St. Mary's, Barrow and Anchorage, Alaska
[Alaska News Nightly host intro] Alaska Native students make up nearly one-quarter of the student body in the state, but only five percent of teachers are Alaska Native. And new research from UAA shows despite years of effort, it’s been difficult to get more Native educators into Alaska Schools. In the next installment of our “Being Young in rural Alaska” series, from the producers of Kids These Days, Sarah Gonzales takes a closer look at the problem.
[Ambient classroom noise, students talking and laughing.]
SARAH GONZALES: It’s a Friday at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Ten students are wrapping up today’s class, getting ready to start the weekend. Half are undergraduates and half are graduate-level students … all of them are Alaska Native. They come from Metlaketla, Craig, Hoonah, Juneau and Anchorage and they are each receiving a scholarship from the School of Education.
[Ronalda Cadiente-Brown] “My name is Ronalda Cadiente-Brown and I am the director of the PITAAS program which has been around since 2000. PITAAS is an acronym and it stands for Preparing Indigineous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska’s Schools.”
SG: Cadiente-Browne says that the program has graduated 64 students of Alaska Native heritage since it began. Nemasia Moala is from Juneau and plans to teach Tlingit and English in Juneau after she graduates.
[Moalla] “When I was a kid I didn’t have a whole lot of native educators but the few I did have were really engaged and made me feel comfortable in my own skin.”
SG: That’s one reason to train more Native educators; another is to keep teachers in rural communities. Teacher turnover rates in rural Alaska are twice as high as in urban areas - with some districts, like Yukon Flats north of Fairbanks, losing one third of their teachers each year. Diane Hirshberg, director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research:
[Hirshberg] “We lose educators who understand the communities in which they are teaching. Given that unfortunate fact that most of our rural educators are coming from outside, there is a very steep learning curve for them to understand cultures and communities that are very different from the places that they come from. When they leave, the community has the burden of trying to educate yet another teacher so that they can be effective working with their children. It’s a huge strain on both the educators and on the community that’s trying to work with them.”
SG: Research shows that high turnover rates are directly related to low levels of student achievement. One way to decrease turnover is to train local teachers - studies show these teachers tend to stay put. Jasper Nelson from the Juneau teacher training program plans to teach in his hometown of Craig when he graduates:
[Nelson] “I only had one Alaska native teacher…and he was my favorite teacher. And he was the only one who’d see you at the store and say hi. He was just more used to living in a small town. I paid attention to him because he paid attention to me.”
SG: Nelson says like many of his fellow Alaska Native students he wasn’t encouraged to pursue higher education. Program director Cadiente-Brown says that’s not unusual:
[Cadiente-Brown] “It’s very rare to be mentored into the field, it’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality, a long-term reality.”
SG:There are efforts to counter that “long-term reality”; a collaborative effort called Future Educators of Alaska begins mentoring Alaska Native youth who may be interested in teaching. Middle and high school participants help in classrooms, attend a state-wide conference, and meet with a “mentor teacher” in their community. In saint Mary’s on the Lower Yukon River, mentor teacher Theresa Paukan focuses on public speaking:
[Pauken] “I grew up here and I was so afraid to speak in public even in my little group of 8 kids in high school and as a teacher I try to bring that out in the kids and I know that it’s really important.”
SG: Another hurdle is the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires secondary teachers to be highly qualified in every subject they teach. In small schools, that could be several subjects. In Barrow, Ilisagvik College offers a 2-year Associates degree to students. The Teachers for the Arctic program began as an effort to increase the number of Inupiaq educators in the North Slope Borough School District. Director Martha Stackhouse:
[Stackhouse] “We’re still a very strong subsistence-based culture. We’re whalers. They can identify with that so easily, so much more than somebody from Kansas coming in and not knowing our culture and trying to integrate it into classrooms. Our people they have this already, it’s already ingrained in them.”
Martha Stackhouse (left) with fellow educators in Barrow
SG: Stackhouse says when she began teaching in Barrow in the 1980’s, it was hard for the Inupiaq community to accept that she could do a good job as an Alaska Native teacher. Acceptance of Native teachers may have come a long way since then; now the challenge is to find more of them.
Reporting from Juneau, I’m Sarah Gonzales.
The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.
Report no. 1: Why Kids Are Learning Indigenous Language
Reporting from: Kake, Alaska & Barrow, Alaska
[Alaska News Nightly host intro] Beginning today, we are bringing you a new reporting series from the producers of Kids These Days! In a series of twelve reports from all over the state, they’re asking the question: “What’s it like to be young in rural Alaska?” Today, series producer, Sarah Gonzales in Kake and reporter Anne Hillman in Barrow find out why teaching indigenous language to children is so important…
SARAH GONZALES: Efforts to teach Alaska Native languages to kids aren’t exactly new in Alaska – in many places, it’s been done in some form or another for several decades. But in some places across the state, there is a new sense of urgency --- as elders pass away, there are fewer fluent speakers, and more and more, the link between speaking the language, feeling connected to culture, and overall wellness is being understood.
ANNE HILLMAN: So schools that have for years taught a little Inupiaq or Tlingit are stepping up their efforts, and trying new methods.
[Natural sound: Girl reading numbers in Inupiaq while teacher says “eee” (yes)]
AH: Barrow Middle school language teacher Beverly Hugo sits with a student showing her cards with what look like random tally marks on them. She’s helping the girl learn to identify and say Inupiaq numerals. Instead of looking like typical Arabic numerals, they are combinations of diagonal lines. The number system is based on 20, the number of a person’s fingers and toes.
[Hugo] “Our culture has used the body as a counting numeral base...."
AH: Hugo’s Barrow middle school class is part of the North Slope Borough’s efforts to revitalize the Inupiaq language using a computer program called Viva. The students listen to words over the computer then select the matching picture. When they get enough right, they practice saying them out loud with Hugo. She says the program’s focus on listening and speaking is very different from how the language used to be taught.
[Hugo] “The previous 30 years of the Inupiaq language program the students learned to read and write but they weren’t comprehending what they were reading and writing about.”
AH: Now, some of the students, like Vernon Elavgak, are using the language for practical reasons – like whaling with his family.
[Anne in classroom] So when you’re out in the camp, out on the ice, do you use some of the Inupiaq words you learned here? [Vernon] Yes. [Anne] Like which ones? [Vernon] [speaks in Inupiaq] like if I see one on the out on the water and if its like on the top and then going back down...”
AH: About twelve hundred miles south of here, students in Kake, Alaska are also learning their indigenous language. Tlingit.
[Classroom sound, child counting from one to ten in Tlingit]
SARAH GONZALES: In Falen Mills classroom in Kake, third grade students practice their numbers and recite the colors in Tlingit.
[Student says colors in Tlingit] “Síagw·at yex yatee is brown, hemlock bark, Xíaan yex yatee is red, fire”
SG: The children learn that each color is associated with something in the natural world. Gray is baby seagull, green is green rocks – they are being taught more than just words – they are also learning about their history, culture and the environment.
SG: The number of people in Kake who can converse in Tlingit has shrunk from 70 speakers in 2000 to just 24 in 2012. There is an urgency for kids to learn from those who can still speak Tlingit. So, about two years ago, with funding from the local tribal government, students in 1st through 8th grades started spending 30 minutes a day - every day – learning their language.
[Jade] “If they spoke Tlingit back then they would get in big trouble. Sometimes they would get sent home or whipped. So they didn’t get to speak Tlingit, but now they’re letting us speak it so we can pass it on to our children and stuff.”
SG: How they learn their language varies by age.
[Sarah in 1st grade classroom] “What game are we going to play?” [Child] “Heads up seven up!” [Sarah] “How does it go? What are the rules?” [Child] “You put your [Tlingit word for thumbs] up…” …ambient of children explaining rules...]
SG: Falen’s first graders play games and sing songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Tlingit. While in Ruth Demmert’s older, 7th and 8th grade class, the students are learning to introduce themselves – a Native tradition that acknowledges tribe, clan, moiety, grandparents and parents.
[Jacqueline Bennum] "speaking in Tlingit... is my clan. I'm Jacqueline Bennum and I'm in the 8th grade…”
SG: Demmert has been teaching Tlingit in Kake since 1974. In her decades of teaching she has learned that helping kids to learn their language is ultimately about instilling confidence.
[Demmert] "I think it’s real important for them because they are going to go through life and culture and they aren’t going to look like the rest of the world. And people are gonna ask them well what tribe or nationality are you, do you know anything of your language or culture. I think it’s real important for self esteem.”
AH: While in Barrow, Pearl Brower, president of Illisagvik College, says it’s all about understanding the nuances of culture.
[Brower] “A culture’s language kind of imbues everything about that culture. When someone speaks in your own language, there are so many pieces to it. It’s not just words. There are intonations, meanings you don’t get.”
SG: Alaska Native children in Barrow, Kake and all over the state are learning their indigenous language for reasons much larger than school credit.
AH: Like, knowing where they come from, and developing a sense of belonging, a strong identity.
SG: The ability to converse with elders and then teach a new generation.
AH: To speak and understand while working on a whaling boat.
SG: And, as this 1st grader put it:
[Boy] “The reason why we like to speak Tlingit is it saves our souls.”
AH: Reporting from Barrow, I’m Anne Hillman.
SG: And reporting from Kake, I’m Sarah Gonzales.