A word from the president: Alaska must improve urban and rural education options

By: Margie Brown CIRI president and CEO

Recently, Governor Parnell asked me to offer my suggestions about education reform in Alaska. I thought hard about what advice to offer. My analysis is shaped by my family’s own experiences with Alaska’s education system. This generational view begins with my grandfather, Adams Hollis Twitchell, whose impact on my family continues today.

My grandfather was mostly a self-educated man with a mind inclined to natural science and a hunger for life-long learning. His life in Western Alaska would come to include owning and operating trading posts and reindeer herds. And it would include raising a family and providing his children with opportunities for formal education.

Educating children in remote, rural Alaska then was much different than today. For grandfather’s children, including my father, formal schooling began at the mission at Holy Cross. After receiving encouragement from his Jesuit teachers, my father traveled alone to Fairbanks from the small community of Flat to attend high school.

Traveling away from home for schooling was the only realistic option at the time. Much more recently, the decision in the Molly Hootch lawsuit and the resulting Tobeluk consent decree changed schooling options dramatically. Coming providentially at the same time as the wealth poured into state coffers from the royalties from Prudhoe Bay, these legal actions led to the state opening 105 secondary schools in rural Alaska, providing Alaska Native children throughout the state the option to attend high school in their own communities, including for the first time, in rural Alaska. Not only would these new schools provide for grade school and middle school children, they would also incorporate high school students as well.

While the 1972 Molly Hootch decision was a landmark, the world has changed dramatically in the last 39 years. I believe now is the time to accurately reassess the impacts of that decision. Failure to carefully consider its effects nearly four decades later would be a disservice to our children and grandchildren.

Clearly there were excellent outcomes from the Molly Hootch lawsuit and Tobeluk consent decree. No longer would parents of grade school children face the prospect of the entire family leaving home and village so children could go to grade school – the very decision my parents made when they decided they must move from our village of Takotna. Sending young children away to school was unacceptable to them. Providing for schooling in a home village for young children was a huge and necessary change in the law.

But when considering today’s high school age children, and the challenges they face in an increasingly competitive marketplace, I feel the impacts of the Molly Hootch decision require reevaluation. In fact, I fear that without an honest look at success at the high school level for small village schools, we are shirking our duty to inquire and we threaten allowing a generation of high school students arriving at college or trade school unprepared and undereducated. And in today’s competitive world, undereducation places these students at a severe disadvantage.

U.S. testing has scored Alaska students near the bottom among the states, with Alaska Native students ranking among the worst performing groups in the state. And these trends are getting worse. Alaskans are barely in the game when our academic scores are below average and fewer than half of Alaska Native students graduate from high school. These statistics are ominous because educational attainment directly correlates with virtually every quality of life measurement, including employment, income, propensity to crime and substance abuse, and even life expectancy.

Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a CIRI-affiliated nonprofit, has developed several programs that are steadily improving Alaska Native and American Indian academic performance. CITC’s school-within-a-school program has been in Anchorage grade, middle and high schools for nearly a decade and is steadily improving participant proficiency and scores on standardized basic assessment tests and high school graduation qualifying exams.

CITC educators have determined that the biggest challenges to improving performance for all Alaska Native and American Indian students in Anchorage are the homelessness (and near-homelessness), residential transiency and family instability among students. CITC is addressing these problems by building its innovative Dena’ina House residential school in east Anchorage for Native and American Indian students aged 14 to18. Dena’ina House will provide comprehensive education services that experts and policy makers expect will significantly improve students’ academic performance and life outcomes.

Urban Alaska students have long out-performed their rural peers because higher student densities enable economies of scale that provide more and better education programs and services for fewer dollars. I am convinced that residential school programs like Dena’ina House’s can close the gap between Alaska Native and general student performance not only in Anchorage, but across the entire state, especially in rural Alaska.

I acknowledge that there is fear in the Alaska Native community about regional residential schools. We still have a generation of Alaska Natives who were uprooted to boarding schools. In keeping with the appalling policies of the federal government at the time, these schools made a concerted effort to separate children from their Alaska Native culture, the result of which was not surprisingly harmful.

We have evolved as a culture, a nation, and a world dramatically since 1972, and should therefore reexamine this old model and its effects. I believe that in today’s more culturally sensitized world, we can create residential regional high schools where enhancement, not destruction, of Alaska Native culture is promoted; where high academic standards are expected and pursued; where along with academic offerings, students are offered the full and robust array of extracurricular school opportunities; and where highly functioning and resilient students that are ready to take on life’s challenges is the result.

As the newly elected Governor Parnell takes office to lead our state, I urge him and his administration to work with the Alaska Native community to begin the dialog of systemic change. We need to act soon to fix Alaska’s education system. We must make education a statewide priority and implement proven and innovative programs like CITC-inspired residential schools and schools within schools, to improve learning and close Alaska’s academic performance gaps, before it is too late. And we need to look beyond residential schools in Anchorage to other regional centers across the state.

We owe it to our children to act, not from fear, but from our vision of what can be.