A Way Up North

By Sean Cavanagh — May 21, 2003 17 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Education done by the book wasn't working in Alaska's isolated Chugach district. So school leaders there decided to write their own book.

From the shores of this remote fishing village, stray cityfolk can reel in coho salmon until their arms ache, but they won’t find a single store that sells toothpaste, or even matches. A four-seat, twin-engine Seneca can get them here in 40 minutes from Anchorage, if the gusts over the coastal ranges are right. But once the plane hits the gravel landing strip, there isn’t a highway, or a paved road, for miles.

And on the crest of a hill, above a collection of squarish houses, a Russian Orthodox church, and the glacier-fed waters of Prince William Sound, they will find a small, wood-framed school. Inside are drawing boards and desks, vocabulary charts and overhead projectors. But when the first lessons of the day begin, that’s where most similarities to the accepted classroom norms quickly vanish here in Tatitlek, pop. 107.

Six years ago, the school of 37 students, and others in the Chugach school system, took a sharp turn from tradition. They got rid of grade levels and uniform academic schedules, replacing them with specially tailored lesson plans for all students, preschool through age 21. They set up a process in which students advanced step by step through individual subjects, rather than simply being promoted, or held back, at the end of the academic year. And students who mastered a subject quickly were allowed to progress at a faster place, and slow down in areas that vexed them.

Tatitlek, the Prince William Sound village on Alaska’s southern coast, is, in many ways, the other side of the world from Anchorage, the state’s population center 200 miles away.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

Those variations, and many others, are at the core of Chugach’s “Reinventing Schools” model, which has brought the 214-student district national recognition since it launched its revamped program in 1995. Stretched across 22,000 square miles of remote islands and inlets, with a student population that is 50 percent Alaska Native, Chugach’s schools have seen a surge in several measures of academic achievement—standardized-test scores, reading levels, and high school completion rates—after years of struggle.

Others have taken notice. At least a dozen other Alaska school districts have decided to adopt Chugach’s model, or are in the process of implementing it. And it has drawn enthusiastic inquiries from a number of districts in the Lower 48—where some see the program as a potentially effective tool for improving education in remote areas—and in Native American schools, historically among the lowest-performing in the country.

Education in rural Alaska comes with its own, peculiar obstacles. Eighty-two of the state’s 506 public schools have 25 or fewer students, and many of those schools are hundreds of miles apart. Such is the case in Chugach, where two of the district’s three schools, in Tatitlek and Chenega Bay (pop. 69), are for the most part accessible only by plane. The third, located in the rugged seaside town of Whittier, has 182 residents and is an hour’s drive down the Cook Inlet from the district’s offices in Anchorage. Getting there requires passage through a 21/2-mile, one-lane mountain tunnel, navigable only on a timed, daily schedule.

Even in an era of satellite dishes and the Internet, that sort of the geography breeds isolation. Chugach officials have sought to reduce it, by incorporating a number of school-to-life programs aimed at preparing young people for the potentially terrifying world beyond their hometowns. One such effort sends students on regular trips to a district-owned house in Anchorage.

“They could read it in a book a hundred million times—we all know it doesn’t work,” says Mark Barry, who took a teaching job in Tatitlek two years ago. "[They] have to experience it for themselves.”

Barry knew better than to expect the

norm when he and his wife, Tami Wolff, decided to move to the village. Still, the isolation was unsettling at first, even for a couple who had just left teaching jobs in the Solomon Islands.

“That’s it?” Tami asked, taking her first look at Tatitlek from the plane.

Dyllon Mills, 7, bottom, works with Debbie Treece, a quality-school coordinator for the Chugach district, on an “emotional intelligence quotient” questionnaire that district officials use to gauge self-esteem and other measures of student health.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

From a thousand or so feet above, they would have seen a cluster of multi-colored houses set into a hillside, dissected by dirt roads and ringed by forests of pine rolling away to the Sound. Chiseled, snowy peaks framed the horizon in all directions, with the rugged mass of Copper Mountain rising just east of town.

But over time, they adjusted. They moved into a house at one end of town, and gradually learned about the community, and education’s place in it, from students, parents, and the village’s elders. Tatitlek’s population is made up almost entirely of Alaska Natives, many of them of Alutiiq tribal descent (some villagers also refer to themselves as Aleut), whose roots along the Sound trace back thousands of years. Some local traditions took hold in the 1700s and 1800s, when waves of white hunters and traders, most notably the Russians, began sweeping through. Those explorers set up outposts, and later, established Orthodox churches, christening many of the Alutiiq with Russian names. That Slavic influence echoes still in Tatitlek, in class rolls and village records full of Totemoffs, and Kompkoffs.

Today, some villagers hunt and fish for a living. Others work in the oil industry, or cleaning up after it; the spot where the Exxon Valdez bled its contents is on the other side of nearby Bligh Island, a short boat ride away.

Education institutions in this region were not always a source of trust. A few elders remember attending U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, where students were punished for speaking their native language. There was a time when some of them held a similarly low view of the school up the dirt road, but they witnessed a turnaround. Elders like Ed Gregorieff remember the day they heard the district had won the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2001, which recognizes high- achieving school programs and private businesses, among others.

“I had tears in my eyes, I was so proud of them,” says Gregorieff, 79, known to many here as Uppa, or grandfather.

Village elder Ed Gregorieff, 79, recalls the surge of emotion he felt when the district’s long-struggling schools won a national award in 2001. “I had tears in my eyes, I was so proud of them.”
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

Not that long ago, people in the district felt little reason to boast about education. Test scores at Chugach’s schools were abysmal. Dropout rates were high. Ninety percent of its students could not read at grade level. Teacher turnover averaged about 55 percent a year.

In 1994, the district began moving toward reform. It organized meetings of educators, community leaders, and business activists, asking for their expectations of schools and students, and why they weren’t being met. Eventually, the participants came up with goals for the schools, from basic skills to understanding of technology to character development. And in a region rife with joblessness and poverty, emphasizing school-to-life success was a must.

School and community leaders eventually shaped 10 “standard areas” in which all students would be measured. Some subjects, such as reading, writing, math, and science, reflected the core of almost any school curriculum. Others, like “cultural awareness and expression” and “personal/social/health development,” focused on nonacademic growth. Today, students work at different “levels,” with varying thresholds for graduation. Students can reach those levels by age 14, and continue school and specialized training beyond that point, or, in areas where they struggle, keep trying until age 21.

The district received a waiver from the state for a series of high school graduation requirements (an exemption several other Alaska districts have received since then). And it stopped using letter grades as well as grade levels.

Over time, those changes seem to have paid off. From 1995 to 1999, district scores on the California Achievement Test (used by schools across Alaska) jumped from the 28th percentile to the 72nd percentile. Reading scores climbed from the 28th percentile to the 71st, and results in spelling, language arts, and math rose, too. State data for 2000-01 showed no dropouts. Turnover among the district’s 22 teachers dwindled to less than 20 percent for each of the past three years.

Soon, other districts were seeking to copy Chugach. Today, the voluble personality charged with carrying the blueprint to them is often district Superintendent Richard DeLorenzo.

A native of Seattle, DeLorenzo moved to Alaska 23 years ago, taking a job as a special education teacher in the southeastern coastal village of Yakutat. Working with disadvantaged youths helped shape his approach in Chugach, where he began a job as assistant superintendent in 1994.

Since taking over the Chugach superintendent’s post from Roger Sampson, a key architect of the model (who last week was named Alaska’s new education commissioner), DeLorenzo, along with staff members and even students, has traveled thousands of miles to explain the program. He speaks before school boards, elected officials, superintendents, and countless others. His staff sends out printed materials outlining the Chugach philosophy.

The role of spokesman suits DeLorenzo. He is 45 years old and almost completely bald, with short, gray hair, but remains lean, and almost boyish. When he tells the Chugach story for the thousandth time, speeding ahead and slowing down, swerving off topic, then coming back, DeLorenzo’s pitch has the thrill of the first recounting.

Melissa Totemoff, left, and Angelique Gregorieff work on a Web scavenger hunt on the woolly mammoth during class in Tatitlek. The townspeople are mostly Alaska Natives, many of Alutiiq tribal descent.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

“Right now, you can take me to any district in America, and I can show you a tremendous disparity in what they teach and how they teach it, from school to school, and teacher to teacher,” DeLorenzo says in a conversation at his Anchorage office. Education officials nationwide try to close those gaps through standards and assessments, he says, but they’d be better off focusing on the way students are taught. Today, he argues, traditional education puts too much emphasis on “seat time” and simply fails to meet the needs of individual students. Not so in Chugach, DeLorenzo says.

“We’re trying to help every one of our kids be successful,” he says.

He does not lack ambition. The schools chief wants to see Chugach’s model implemented in 1,000 districts nationwide, in systems as large as 20,000 pupils. Currently, a district with roughly 4,000 students is the largest trying it.

Not that there aren’t doubters. Some critics say Chugach’s test scores are less glowing when stacked up against Alaska’s most successful districts, and that its results may be skewed because of its small student population. And detractors contend that given Alaska’s difficulties in attracting and keeping teachers, many districts would struggle to commit as much time to train instructors as Chugach has.

Others note the money Chugach has drawn from grants and foundations, and wonder if other districts could really make their own strides without it. Along with its annual state funding, Chugach uses two grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, totaling almost $11 million between 2000 and 2007. The district’s annual budget is about $2.2 million.

In Tatitlek, even a birthday party can draw a significant crowd. Devon Totemoff makes a braid for Staci Mae Totemoff at a party for Jordan Geffe, 15, not shown, an event attended by about a third of the village school’s students.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

“Are other rural school districts going to get that foundation money?” says Van Mueller, a retired professor of education at the University of Minnesota, who is conducting a study of Alaska’s school districts. Mueller says his preliminary analysis shows Chugach’s test scores over the past three years falling somewhere in the middle of the pack in Alaska—though he did not discount its improvements over time.

Chugach Assistant Superintendent Bob Crumley counters that at least 98 percent of the Gates money flows directly into district programs helping other school systems start and refine the model. He notes that as Chugach built its program from scratch, it did so without that grant money—a fact that he says should inspire other schools. Crumley acknowledges that Chugach’s test scores dipped in 1999- 2000 and 2000-01, though he says those evaluations were based on a much smaller pool of students.

in Tatitlek, Mark Barry’s class reflects Chugach’s core themes. The 30-year-old instructor is certified in social studies, but with a school staff of just three teachers, he covers everything. His day is divided into teaching classes in different standard areas, and at any given time, his students are working at different levels in each of them.

Regardless of the subject, Barry often begins classes with an introduction to a topic. Some of his students, ages 14 to 17, have heard this preamble before; for them, it serves as a review. Others are getting it for the first time.

When Barry’s through, students begin individual assignments, using workbooks, textbooks, and computer programs. The teacher moves among them, stopping to confer with students at different levels.

The Chugach district owns and operates “Anchorage House,” hosting its own students and those from other remote school districts to give them exposure to life in the big city. At left is Irene Lind, 16, of Chignik Lake, during an April sojourn at Anchorage House.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

Here, as elsewhere in the district, students are encouraged to help each other, and learn through tutoring. Shortly after 9 a.m., Barry’s class begins its work in the standard area of writing. On one side of the room, Rami Totemoff, 16, is honing a technical-research paper on international law, a “level 5" assignment.

A few feet away, her 16-year-old cousin, Teresa Totemoff, is reworking a paper she wrote on the life of George Washington. A teacher already has critiqued it, and Teresa’s task is to improve the draft, using instructions on verb tense from a workbook. It’s a tougher assignment: she is at level 6 in writing. At one point, Barry leans in to help.

Less than an hour later, when the math standard area begins, the two students’ strengths have reversed. Rami, who is a level 7, wades into a lesson on unit multipliers. Teresa, who is just beginning level 6, stalls on her questions about probable outcomes, and Rami spends a few minutes explaining the assignment, which the higher-level math student completed not long ago.

Ten minutes later, it’s Rami who needs a hand, and Barry guides her through an exercise on the whiteboard, using equations and asking her to convert miles into kilometers, then inches into feet. Other students in the class, meanwhile, work on their own, occasionally asking for the instructor’s help.

Teaching under the Chugach district’s model brings its own set of demands, several instructors agree. There’s a lot of paperwork, partly because, some of them suggest, not having letter grades creates a need for other ways to document student performance. And preparing curriculum materials crafted to individual pupils, working at different levels, requires considerable planning.

Could this student-by-student approach work in a district with 20 or 30 students per class? Crumley thinks so. The approach might have to be modified, with teachers working with small groups of students, he says, and perhaps less one-on-one attention than Chugach students get. And the program would probably have to work harder in larger communities than it does in a 107-person village to craft curricula that satisfy parents and others.

And they’d have to find teachers willing to try it. By now, Barry is used to juggling several small-school assignments at once. On this day, he’s overseeing a class and working the phone, trying to make sure there are enough seats on planes coming to pick up students later that day.

Including a seat for the coach: Barry is overseeing the Native Youth Olympics squad, which is making a trip to Anchorage for a competition. This brand of Olympics puts students through physical tests rooted in Alaska Native tradition, and Tatitlek’s squad is full of enthusiastic participants. During one break from class, they use a hallway to practice the “seal hop,” a drill in which they make a series of push-up motions from the floor, propping themselves on their knuckles with bent arms.

Chugach faces many challenges a larger district would not. It has to prepare students not only for life after high school, but also for a world most of them rarely see—one with ATMs, 7-Elevens, and four-way intersections. To that end, almost all the district’s students make regular trips to “Anchorage House,” a program to helps build skills for adulthood and work. As Chugach officials began reshaping education in their district, the need for that training became obvious.

“Our communities said, ‘Our kids are going to college, and they’re coming back a few weeks later,’ ” recalls Ty Mase, who directs the Anchorage House program.

Chugach teacher Mark Barry and his students leave the village last month for the Native Youth Olympics competition in Anchorage, winning a preliminary race against an indefatigable Tatitlek dog.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

Officially known as “Voyage to Excellence,” the effort is run out of a two- story house in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on the east end of the city, Alaska’s largest by far, with 265,000 residents. The program is not mandatory, but at least 95 percent of students participate, Mase says, and Chugach now invites other remote districts to send students to the house, too. The more times they come, the longer students stay, with many of the visits ranging from three to nine days.

As guests, they take over responsibility for running the house, dividing up chores, appointing leaders to oversee tasks, and working within a budget. The students shadow workers at job sites, perform community service, and learn about college through campus visits and talks with university staff. But for many of the teenage visitors, the most daunting task is the city itself. Some have never before set foot outside their village. Others have never eaten at a restaurant, balanced a checkbook, or crossed a busy street. A typical assignment asks them to find their way across town on a city bus, making transfers as they go.

Throughout the year, Mase has hosted several students from Tatitlek. This week, his visitors include two girls from Whittier, and a group from a faraway district near the Aleutian Islands.

That same day, Mark Barry’s students are making their own trip to Anchorage, with five of them squeezing into a 10-seat, twin-engine Navajo, on their way to the Native Youth Olympics competition. Rami Totemoff climbs aboard, as does her cousin, John Wayne Totemoff. The students are high-school age, many of them veterans of treks to Anchorage House, and they’ve flown to the city dozens of times.

After lifting off from the gravel runway, and leaving a black dog sprinting in the plane’s wake, the craft banks to the west. It glides over Bligh Reef, and soon Barry and the students can see chunks of a glacier, floating in the green Sound below. Over the drone of the engines, they lean to talk, and make themselves heard, as the plane bucks in the wind.

In a half-hour or so, they will touch down in Anchorage. It will be almost 5 p.m., rush hour. They will pile into a van, heading off for the Residence Inn, set along a bustling commercial street. That night, they will have dinner in the hotel, though they’ll take in other restaurants, a Chinese deli, and a sandwich shop, serving shrimp chow mein and pastrami, before the trip’s over.

And the next day, they will get up early, and drive to the competition. They will push through the seal hop and other trials alongside Alaska Natives from all over the state, some from villages even smaller than Tatitlek. They are ready.

Related Tags:


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 13, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: February 21, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read