Alaska Native Charter School beats odds

The Alaska Native Cultural Charter School got off to a rough start in 2008 with lower than expected enrollment, a facility still undergoing renovations and other bumps in its untraveled road. But it’s been making up for it ever since by never wavering from its mission: “Building student excellence through traditional cultural learning.”

As test scores tell it, the school motto is working. Among other impressive statistics, the school topped the Anchorage School District’s most-improved list in language arts and math scores with an 8.7 percent rise in 2010-11 over the previous academic year.

Such achievement has not gone unnoticed. The school was honored recently as a National Title 1 Distinguished School for academic growth in an underserved student group. Around the same time, Principal Diane Hoffbauer received the district’s Denali Award for her “hardworking spirit” in helping close achievement gaps.

The school, with up to 225 students, K-7, and another 16 in the school’s separate preschool program, now has a waiting list. It has long since settled into a remodeled former furniture store in Muldoon, with walls full of bookcases, student artwork, reminders of Native values and paper feathers noting achievements and good deeds. Each day begins with an Elder’s message in Yupik and English. Like this one from Paul John of Toksook Bay:

Ilumun una yuk taugaam ellminek pikuni piyugngauq.
“Indeed, one can succeed only if he desires.”

It’s no surprise that members of the CIRI family play a role in this success story, as teachers, parents, volunteers and students, from Chantielle Orr, a CIRI shareholder and preschool teaching assistant, to descendant Elizabeth Hancock, the school’s administrative assistant and a founding member of the Academic Policy Committee (APC). Hancock’s three descendant children are past and present students at the school: Garry Hull Jr., a graduate now at Mears Middle School; Benjamin Bourdukofsky, a third-grader, and Abigail Hancock, a preschooler.

Parent Mikan Outwater, president of the school’s APC, is among those deeply involved. Her husband, Frank Jr., is a CIRI shareholder, and two of their descendant children attend the school, where Joey is in the fourth grade, and Jessie, the sixth. Outwater appreciates how Native ways of knowing are woven throughout the curriculum, from edible plants to dancing. She especially likes the way one unit teaching math and science in a cultural context evolves around fish harvesting.

“Is it enough to feed our family? Is it enough to feed my dogs? Is it enough to share? Is it enough to last us through winter? And it depends on what kind of fish, so they talk about different uses for each fish.”

The school’s various enrichment programs and partners include the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a CIRI-founded nonprofit, which sends storytellers, drummers and others over from time to time. And twice a week, the school’s sixth and seventh graders attend its afterschool program. The graduation rate for Alaska Native and American Indian students is less than 50 percent, according to a recent regional study. But for those who participate in the center’s afterschool program, the rate is somewhere between 78 and 85 percent, according to Steven Alvarez, program director.

Angela Blue, a CIRI shareholder, teaches third grade, and her daughter, Kristy Deacon, also a shareholder, is a volunteer and APC secretary (see Shareholder Spotlight in this issue). Students, they say, especially from rural villages, often feel overwhelmed in their larger neighborhood schools. “Being as small as we are, we build relationships with them,” Blue said. “We understand where they’re coming from. We see them grow here.”