Alaska Native tribes can now apply to pilot program for increasing tribal control of local schools

Joel Isaak, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s tribal liaison, speaks about SB34 at the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage on Oct. 17, 2022. (Screenshot from First Alaskans Institute livestream.)

Alaska Native tribes have until Dec. 30 to apply for one of five spots in a pilot program meant to encourage more tribal control of local schools.

It’s part of a new law, Senate Bill 34, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed in July. The bill kicks off a multi-year process of creating state-tribal compact schools. Compact agreements would allow tribes to develop their own K-12 curriculum, independent of an existing school district.

Joel Isaak, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s tribal liaison, spoke about the law at the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage on Monday.

“Compacting is a mechanism that is government to government,” he said. “It’s a partnership. It’s a tool for communicating, and it’s really about recognizing government to government agreements.”

That process will start with a pilot program where tribes will receive grants to establish new schools and offer input on future legislation that could make state-tribal schools more widespread. Isaak said that makes this process unique.

“Generally, it’s difficult to be able to get all the tribes in the state to sit down, like, ‘How are we going to draft this?,’” he said. “What Senate Bill 34 does is it provides a framework for tribes to be able to help draft the legislative report for what needs to be in a bill to make compacting a reality.”

Isaak asked attendees to share how they would measure a school’s success. Isha Twitchell heads the academic policy committee for the Knik Cultural Charter School, which opened in Wasilla this year. She said enthusiasm from both students and parents was valuable.

“We’re measuring our success right now by kids being happy, wanting to be in school, and parents giving nothing but positive feedback,” Twitchell said.

Attendees also discussed the importance of language preservation at future schools.

The Alaska Federation of Natives convention will also include a panel discussion on Alaska Native education moderated by Isaak. It’s scheduled for Friday at 2:55 p.m.

Alaska Public Media

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