The Yupiit School District is possibly the smallest in Alaska. It is operated by residents and serves around 660 students living in three Yupik villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta — Akiachak, Akiak and Tuluksak. This is a region where the indigenous language is still commonly spoken. The three villages formed the Yupiit Nation in a bid to assert their autonomy. Elders are deeply involved in the schools.
Residents of the Yupiit school district have gone to court to force the state to spend more resources to improve the schools. They have aggressively applied for funds to instruct their children in both the Western educational mode and in their traditional language and culture.
That’s what brought Rayna Hartc to a district office three years ago, where she found a closet full of Yupik curriculum gathering dust.
“It was painful,” Hartc said. “It was really painful.”
This material went way beyond teaching traditional crafts. She described high-level lessons, bridging western and Yupik culture.
One involved navigation techniques and mathematics.
“And it’s explored through the traditional ways they used to navigate to get around and then it blends in the current western science and it’s that fusion that is so powerful.”
The reasons this material was sitting unused in a community that craved it, and worked hard to get the funds to develop it, are complex. Part of the problem was short-term grants that covered only curriculum development, but not the training for teachers to use it.
But the larger problem facing this – and other rural school districts – is teacher turnover.
Most teachers come from outside the region. They don’t speak the Native language. They struggle with the culture. They leave in a few years. Diane Hirshberg, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Education Policy Research, studied the issue for the state legislature.
“The teachers who left really felt disconnected from the communities, dissatisfied with the support they were getting from their administration, both district level and within the school,” she said.
“They felt that they were dealing with behavioral issues with students. There’s just a whole list of things and one of the pieces that is so hard with this is that the teachers may or may not have been able to manage this because they are coming from outside and they are not equipped.”
Imagine being a parent or grandparent, watching teachers come and go from Outside, and doing what you can – working in the school as a teacher’s aide or Yupik language resource and being treated as a glorified babysitter by the all-white staffers.
Rayna Hartc’s family comes from the region.
She saw the solution standing in the classrooms working as teacher’s aides. Originally there, as part of a grant program, she decided to stay to help – linking new teachers from Outside with local mentors, and training one of the Yupik-speaking classified staff up to the level of an independent teacher to establish a co-teaching program.
“The type M Yupik educator is helping understand the child: how does this child learn; what is the family structure; how do they interact. And then the western teacher is going to help the Yupik teacher learn pedagogy, lesson planning and power school. So that it truly is two professionals working together to help our children learn both ways of knowing. Because our children have to know both ways.”
Alaska has one tribal college that is interested in developing Alaska Native teachers. Pearl Brower, president of Ilisagvik College in Barrow, says there’s a problem finding enough students committed to teaching in rural Alaska.
Local students know that rural teachers work long days and have very little time left for a life outside of school.
“A teacher’s life isn’t necessarily looked at as something really … as something others want to emulate and do. Then you also go into the fact that a lot of our residents in our villages have big families and have their own children and are they interested in being in the classroom all day long? So I think there’s just a lot going on and we need to work and figure out how to support our teachers and support that development of a new teaching workforce.”
Brower is convinced it can be done. Ilisagvik is looking at various approaches.
Less than one in three of the state’s indigenous rural students graduate and in some places, as few as one in five get their diploma.