Native (Alaskan) Education

By Sean Cavanagh — May 28, 2009 2 min read
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The state of Alaska recently announced plans to create a position for a new director of rural education, whose job will include working the state’s native population, known as Alaska Natives. The new director is likely to spend a lot of time on the road, or rather, in the air, traveling to the state’s far-flung villages and school districts, and cultivating relationships with community leaders, a spokesman for the state department of education told me.

It’s bound to be a major task. Twenty-three percent of Alaska’s 128,000 students are Alaska Natives. The state’s daunting (and spectacular) landscape makes serving them, and rural communities in general, a major challenge. Back when I visited Alaska in 2003, the state had 506 public schools, 135 of which had 50 or fewer students and 100 of which have three or fewer teachers. I visited the Chugach district, outside of Anchorage, which served a significant Native population and had improved its academic standing, and a very remote school in the Bering Strait, with a population that was 100 percent Native, for a profile of a first-year teacher there. (See the photo from the island of Little Diomede, at right, taken by the photographer who accompanied me, James Prichard) Luring teachers to those communities is a challenge, to say the least.

The director of rural education will focus on the improving academic performance in remote districts, and will oversee the implementation of the state’s cultural standards, which were created in the 1998 and designed “to ensure that students are well-grounded in their community’s traditions,” according to a statement from Alaska officials. The position is “an important step in building bridges between rural schools and their communities,” Alaska Education Commissioner Larry LeDoux said in a statement.

I was curious about whether other states have their own administrators whose job it is to work specifically on American Indian issues, and it turns out that several do, according to Robert Cook, the president of the National Indian Education Association, an organization which advocates for students of those backgrounds. Those state officials’ titles and duties vary.

Cook and other education officials I spoke to cited Idaho, Nebraska, and New Mexico, among others, as having full-time directors or coordinators responsible for overseeing Indian education. He said he’d like to see more of them, particularly in states with significant American Indian populations.

Helping predominantly American Indian schools cope with the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, and preserving and developing programs in native languages are just a few of the tasks those state officials focus on, said Cook, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation who lives in South Dakota. He called the new Alaska position “a great opportunity” for the state.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.