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Apart of the World

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Until the 1970s, Alaska's education system was a hodgepodge. The state eventually took steps to organize rural schools.

Educators in Tuluksak, the farthest upriver of the three Yupiit villages, are running into that reality as they discuss how to respond to state initiatives encouraging school-to-work programs. "There are some carpenters, and there's some need for welders," says Gilbert Campbell, the town's school counselor and physical education teacher. "I hear Akiachak has got a restaurant now. But there's just not much. I don't know if either goal [vocational training or college] is a realistic one at this point."

While they do not deny the obstacles, the residents who are active in school affairs want nothing less than the best of both worlds.

Michael Williams is one such leader who has learned to maintain his balance while leaping between different worlds. As a member of both the Yupiit district's school board and the state school board, he talks education reform and finance equity in English laced with education policy argot. As a breeder and racer of competitive sled dogs, he is a member of Alaska's fraternity of serious mushers, which has become predominantly white. And as a substance-abuse counselor, he is employed by a government bureaucracy. But his first language--and his primary identity--is Yup'ik. He lives in a house that he built himself in Akiak, the village of about 350 where he was born.

"I could live anywhere," Williams says, "but I wanted to raise my children here so they know who they are and they keep their language and culture."

But he also wants his five children, as well as the other village children, to have "the best education possible," whether they stay in the community or go on to postsecondary school or vocational training. Indeed, Williams says, "education is the key to the survival of my people."

Nonetheless, it is obvious that Alaska's Bush schools have a long road to travel if they are to achieve any goal worth striving for.

Standardized-test scores in the Bush are very low. Most of the students in the Yupiit district score below the 25th percentile on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, according to state statistics, and educators say averages in some years and some subjects are in single digits.

While virtually everyone graduates from high school, teachers and administrators who have worked in the Yupiit villages for five to 10 years can recall only one or two students who went on to college.

Outcomes in the other districts in the region are similar. The much larger neighboring Lower Kuskokwim district has somewhat higher scores and more college-bound students, but it includes the comparatively cosmopolitan enrollment of Bethel, a regional hub of 5,000 with a population that is one-third white.

"We know we have to do better," says John Weise, the superintendent of the Yupiit district. "There was certainly a time when you could survive very well without having a certain level of reading proficiency or writing proficiency, but those days are behind us."

Observers say they can see progress, slow though as it may be. After all, the task of improving Bush education--and defining its mission--is part of the transition of Alaska's indigenous people from an isolated subsistence lifestyle to a more extensive, and still evolving, relationship with the dominant American culture.

Until the 1970s, Alaska's education system was a hodgepodge. The first rural schools were organized by missionaries. Later, two parallel school systems were operatedone by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the other by the state governmentwhile some larger towns had locally run schools.

The state eventually took steps to organize rural schools in the 1970s and 1980s, at the same time the BIA began to turn over control of its Alaskan schools to the state government. In 1977, most of the Kuskokwim Delta came under the jurisdiction of the "rural education area" that later became the Lower Kuskokwim school district. Meanwhile, the state, flush with oil money, settled a lawsuit filed by a group of Eskimos and agreed to build high schools in virtually every village. Before that, older students in many villages had to go away to an urban high school or a BIA boarding school.

In 1985, residents of Akiachak, Akiak, and Tuluksak--who were also pushing for greater local sovereignty powers in general--voted to create their own school district rather than be part of the Lower Kuskokwim.

"When the BIA pulled out of education in Alaska, we looked for ways to get control over our schools," says Willie Kasayulie, an influential local leader who is the longtime chairman of the Yupiit school board.

But local control has proved to be a difficult stretch for people who never had any say in school policy and often viewed the schools as an alien, or even hostile, institution.

"They have had to reinvent a system that has existed elsewhere in the United States since Horace Mann," says David Williams, the director of the University of Alaska's Kuskokwim campus in Bethel.

While many children who attended the BIA schools never got beyond the basics of reading and arithmetic, and relatively few graduated from high school, most observers say that village students who did stick it out probably got a better education than students in today's Bush schools.

"When they started the village schools, the quality of education went down considerably while the number of students who completed went up," says David Williams, who taught at a boarding high school in Bethel that drew students from the region. "Over time, the quality of that education has improved."

Of the approximately 300 seniors who graduate from village high schools in the Yukon and Kuskokwim each year, he says, about 40 enroll on his campus. Their still-low scores on college-entrance exams have been steadily rising, he says, as have their basic skills.

Local educators can see slow progress, too. "When I got here in the early 1980s, test scores were below the first percentile, says Eckelman, the Akiachak principal. "We had kids testing at grade levels that were negative numbers. Now, we're up to the 20's in some things."

At teacher's eye level, however, progress that slow can be hard to see at all, and the obstacles look daunting.

Eckelman, a Montana native with an affinity for rural settings, packed her bags for Alaska after reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a book set in the Arctic. She didn't realize until much later that the story was about Canadian Eskimos.

To elementary teacher Appel, "it's an adventure, like being in the Peace Corps."

'When they started the village schools, the quality of education went down considerably while the number of students who completed went up.'

David Williams director,
University of Alaska, Kushokwim

Counselor and PE teacher Campbell had a more mundane motivation. A native of Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city, he wanted a job in his home state. Despite the high rural turnover statewide, Alaska is still a very competitive market for educators because wages are high--though so are costs--and many people are interested in working here.

Every educator faces some level of culture shock in an area as remote as the Kuskokwim Delta.

"I remember my son pushing the [television] remote-control button, and I had to explain to him that there's only one channel," Steve Dodson, the kindergarten and home economics teacher, says.

Any serious shopping--not to mention a trip to a doctor or a restaurant--requires traveling to Bethel. It is only 15 miles from Akiachak and 40 miles from Tuluksak, but that distance looms large, as there are no roads. In the winter, the trip can be made by dog sled or snow machine, or in one of the taxis that drive up and down the riverine "ice road" when conditions permit. These transit modes disappear in the spring and fall with the ice.

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