Apart of the World

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Villagers also tend to be leery of newcomers, including teachers, because experience has shown them that the recent arrivals won't stick around.

Teachers' housing has hot running water, modern kitchens, and central heating--luxury items in Bush villages. But they pay high prices for what would be low-rent housing in a city; the cabinets show wear, pipes are visible, and many fixtures are stained a rusty orange.

"Can you believe this cost $6?" Appel says, as she snaps a plastic shade over a bare bulb hanging from her apartment's low ceiling. She warns a visitor to boil water before drinking and think twice before throwing anything light-colored in the washer.

The isolation has its financial consequences for the schools as well. Per-pupil expenditures in rural Alaska are high--about $16,000 in the Yupiit district. But the money goes quickly when an away basketball game means putting the team on a plane.

Michael Patrick, who has taught high school in Akiak for seven years, points to an ordinary table and chair set his classroom. "The cost of this in Anchorage was about $400. The cost of shipping it from Anchorage was $650."

Distance learning and Internet access, which have obvious potential for Bush schools, also run into obstacles. The quality of telephone connections is low, and there is often a delay of several seconds between one party speaking and the other party hearing the words. "As you can imagine, [computer] modems don't like that at all," says Akiak Principal Pete Polson.

These material difficulties can pale in import, however, to the task of learning to live and teach in an alien culture where the primary language of some students and most parents is Yup'ik. Indeed, the lower Kuskokwim is the only region in the state where a significant number of children still grow up speaking a native tongue.

Principal Eckelman recalls being thrown together with a 1st grade class of Yup'ik speakers--who initially did nothing but hiss at her--and communicating with them through two children who spoke broken English. "I'd say something, those two kids would translate, they'd all confer in Yup'ik, and then they would relay the answer," she says.

No longer does that happen. What's more, elementary classrooms all have Yup'ik-speaking aides to help translate, if necessary .

Yet, more subtle barriers remain. Yup'ik Eskimos tend to speak only the number of words necessary for utilitarian purposes. They teach traditional skills through demonstration and pass on legends through ceremony and dance--traditions that do not mesh well with such standard teaching techniques as lectures or class discussions.

Young children here are as outgoing as any and literally jump on visitors with questions. But a high school class is surprisingly quiet, with teachers having to prod students to speak up.

"These are not linear, abstract thinkers," says Appel. "Unfortunately, we have a linear, abstract curriculum."

Teachers also have had to struggle with another cultural tenet--authority here is imbued through age and standing in the local kinship network. "It's a little difficult to be a teacher if nobody wants to listen to you," says Campbell, the counselor in Tuluksak.

Villagers also tend to be leery of newcomers, including teachers, because experience has shown them that the recent arrivals won't stick around. The average stay for a rural teacher in Alaska is about two years. All but two of the 11 teachers in Tuluksak were new this year.

Initially, some children "tested" the new teachers, especially the men, with misbehavior that went as far as a kick in the shins or spitting in a cup of coffee.

"It's not that they don't like you; they think you're going to leave," says high school teacher Patrick. "It took me two years, then I started getting invited to steam baths and to go hunting. The boys that gave me the most trouble at first are my buddies now."

The teachers who stay, like Patrick and Eckelman, inevitably become part of the community.

"It's a much more humanistic endeavor" than teaching in the Lower 48, says Patrick, who taught for many years in Zion, Ill. "You do things with people in the community after school, you do a lot more counseling. I get a lot more questions about daily living than about how to solve equations.

"You have to set limits if you don't want kids knocking on your door every 20 minutes," he adds.

The school is so much the center of the community that principals in particular inevitably find themselves fielding constant requests. "There's always someone who needs the key to the gym or something," says Polson. "You're just about on 24-hour call."

The cultural characteristic that ultimately has the most effect on educational achievement is arguably the Eskimos' powerful ties to their families and home communities. The close-knit relationships help explain why so few students go away to college or to find work.

"Leaving is like death to them," Eckelman says.

Only three Yupiit students have enrolled at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka since 1985, when the former BIA boarding school reopened as an academically rigorous alternative aimed primarily at rural students. And those few did not stay.

One of them was none other than a daughter of school board Chairman Willie Kasayulie. "She lasted five months," he says. "The phone bills were more than the airline tickets."

When Campbell takes the girls' basketball team to a larger town about 50 miles north of Tuluksak, "they're on the phone to their parents as soon as the plane lands," he says. "They complain there's nothing to do, but when they go away, all they want to do is go home."

In addition to seeing the youths' commitment to home and family, educators see the darker side of this isolated, insular culture.

Only about half the Yupiit district's adult residents are high school graduates, the lowest rate in the state. Rates of alcoholism, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, and suicide are disproportionately high throughout rural Alaska. According to federal figures, some 20 percent of the district's students require special education; the national average is about 12 percent.

'I think a change is coming. [Parents] see that their children are going to be more a part of the world and need to be ready for it.'

John Weise superintendent,
Yupiit School District

Campbell believes that Tuluksak's high rate of special education placement--which he puts at about 30 percent--is probably related to fetal alcohol syndrome.

Even absent such social pathology, Yup'ik culture is based on group cooperation, social harmony, and equality, not individual competition, which, again, does not jibe well with traditional teaching methods.

"Nobody wants to stick out, to be a high achiever," Campbell says. "The kids who have the ability have no motivation. There's no competition for them."

Many teachers say that parents do not encourage high achievement and that some do not value schooling at all. When Campbell asked one mother why her son's attendance was so poor, he says she replied, "What does it matter? It won't make any difference, anyway."

"We can't force our world view on them," says Kelly Gerlach, who teaches 1st and 2nd grades in Akiak. "I don't take anything personally."

District Superintendent Weise says that the parents' own school experience was probably limited and largely negative, and they don't really believe their opinion is desired.

"It has a lot to do with parents' encouragement," agrees Karen Don, a kindergarten teacher who is one of three local women, including her mother, who earned degrees and came back to teach in Akiachak. Her father also pursued postsecondary training and is the district's maintenance chief.

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