Lower Kuskokwim schools reduces turnover, improves education with local teaching scholarships

Madelene Reichard teaches seventh graders how to add and subtract unlike fractions at Bethel Regional High School. Reichard graduated from BRHS and a LKSD Board scholarship funded a portion of her college education.

Madelene Reichard teaches seventh graders how to add and subtract unlike fractions at Bethel Regional High School. Reichard graduated from BRHS and a LKSD Board scholarship funded a portion of her college education. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur/KYUK)

“Are you a teacher?” gets asked to new faces in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, particularly of people in their 20s.

Residents are used to seeing teachers, often newly graduated, coming and going every year. And every time a new Lower 48 teacher arrives, a steep learning curve begins. The Lower Kuskokwim School District is trying to avoid that curve and cut turnover by hiring locally.

In Madelene Reichard’s seventh grade math class, students are learning how to add and subtract fractions with different denominators. Remember that from junior high? They have to first find the least common denominator.

The problem is three-fifths plus four-sevenths.

Reichard: “What’s my answer?”

Students: “One and six-thirty-fifths.”

This is Reichard’s first semester teaching at Bethel Regional High School. She graduated from BRHS five years ago and has returned as a certified teacher with a master’s degree in education and curriculum from the University of Oregon. Part of her schooling was paid for by a scholarship from the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

“I knew that I wanted to come back to Bethel. This is my home. This is my community,” she said. “And I knew as a student in the district it was really hard when you had teachers rotating in and out every year. So I knew I was coming back already to teach, to provide some stability and someone who knew what the kids were going through, so I thought, ‘Might as well take advantage of the scholarship.’”

The scholarship is offered to high school graduates or residents of the district who want to get their degree in education and come back to the Lower Kuskokwim to teach. For every year the student receives the $2,000 to $4,000 scholarship from the LKSD Board, the student owes a year of teaching at an LKSD school. If the student attends the University of Alaska Fairbanks, LKSD will pay for everything.

“We would pay for your entire academic courses,” said Joshua Gill, the LKSD director of personnel and student services. “We’d pay for your books, so you could go to school full time.”

He’s responsible for getting teachers in the classrooms, and he wants more of those hired locally.

“I’d love to populate all our schools with teachers from the area,” he said. “You’d see our scores go up. You’d see a lot of things go up, because of the learning piece they don’t have to do. We’ll probably never have that, but I hope to really reduce the number of people we’re going out of the district to look for, for teachers.”

Gill said that locals hired by LKSD usually don’t leave the district. They retire here, and this consistency provides stability for the students and community.

Right now LKSD has about a 15 percent turnover rate. That means that every year Gill is looking to fill 60 to 70 teaching positions. To do that last year, LKSD attended 93 job fairs across the United States.

“You know, that takes a lot of resources, and one of the things the district recognizes is if we’re doing that every year, let’s invest that money into our students here,” he said.

One of those investments is the local scholarship program. One or two are handed out each year and if more people applied, more would be available. Another investment is hiring Yup’ik speakers who read and write the language as teachers while they earn their college degree online.

“We do have the highest Native population of certified teachers in the state, somewhere around 20 percent,” he said.

The district’s newest recruitment tool isn’t for locals, but it offers a more thorough way of screening an applicant: the district brings student teachers to LKSD for a portion of their student teaching. Gill calls it a six-week interview.

This effort to get more local teachers and spend less time looking for and then educating outside teachers about the culture is to provide a better education for the students showing up for class every day.

“The clock starts ticking in kindergarten,” Gill said. “We basically have 13 years to work with those kids. That’s why having someone from out here being able to go into the classroom, understand our kids, understand our culture, and be able to apply the academics to that immediately, we’ll be able to reach those kids quicker and sooner.”

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