A word from the president: Alaska Native students need new education answers

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

As we close the year and contemplate the future, I wish you the best of what the new year will bring. Like many of you, I have been making my New Year’s resolutions and setting difficult but achievable goals that I will work toward in 2010.

One resolution I have set for myself involves helping more Alaska Native students succeed in school.

When I was in high school and college I focused on doing well academically and taking full advantage of educational opportunities. Back then I probably could not have explained why I believed success in school was so important, but at some fundamental level I understood it was my key to unlocking a productive future.

Over time I have come to value education even more than I did when I was a student. That is why it distresses me to see so many Alaska Native students underperforming in school. Why are so many Alaska Native students dropping out of Alaska schools and what can be done to improve their academic success?

There is not a simple answer to these questions, but I resolve to understand why Alaska’s education system is failing Alaska Native students so that I can become an effective advocate for solutions.

That is why I am calling a meeting in January with representatives from the CIRI affiliated nonprofits that sponsor Alaska Native education programs – Cook Inlet Tribal Council, The CIRI Foundation, Alaska Native Heritage Center and Southcentral Foundation. I want the CIRI family of affiliated organizations to work together to understand Alaska Native education challenges and jointly decide upon appropriate education initiatives that we can pursue collectively.

Alaska Native education is in a deepening crisis. Students must stay in class in order to learn. However, fewer than half of Alaska Native and American Indian students now enrolled in Alaska schools will graduate. These students are dropping out at twice the rate of other students nationally, the highest dropout rate of any U.S. ethnic or racial group.

Dropping out of school frequently leads to a lifetime of negative consequences that Alaska Natives already suffer disproportionately, including unemployment, underemployment and other social ills. The median income of Alaska Native households is only two-thirds the median of all Alaska households. And Alaska Natives account for one-third of Alaska’s prison population, almost double their percentage of the state’s population. These statistics are not just numbers. They represent Alaska Native lives that are not reaching their full potential. I believe that the best and fastest way to end this problem and to help more Alaska Natives succeed in life is to enable them to succeed in school.

Fortunately, there is reason for hope and optimism. Recent experience shows that Alaska Native students are capable of high academic achievement and success in life when they are given access to appropriate academic environments. Positive examples include Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe High School and the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. These programs earn high marks because they create safe and welcoming environments for Alaska Native students that teach both practical skills and cultural, community and family values.

Consequently, the challenge is to guide Alaska educators and legislators to reform our state’s education system to meet Alaska Native student needs in a socially and economically acceptable fashion. The solutions are likely to require bold initiatives that contradict current academic policy. However, faced with the failure rate of Alaska Native students, it seems irresponsible to perpetuate current education programs without embracing new programs that incorporate proven ideas.

I look forward to meeting with the leaders of the CIRI-affiliated social service organizations that are working with education challenges every day. We need to discuss and develop Alaska Native education solutions that can be quickly implemented before we lose more of our own to underclass status.

I resolve to learn more about Alaska Native education challenges and to advocate for reforms that support Alaska Native academic success. We all have a duty to past, present and future generations to improve Alaska’s education system to sustain Alaska Native cultures and enable Alaska Native students to enjoy all of the benefits of their state and U.S. citizenship.