School & District Management

Gifted Students ‘Make the Most’ of School in Alaska

By Victoria Petersen — June 12, 2018 9 min read
The remote Alaska town of Glennallen, 180 miles northeast of Anchorage, is home to 500 people. The local school’s graduating class numbered 14 this year.

Glennallen, Alaska

This town of 500 people sits at the end of the Glenn Highway, 180 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. It’s a hub for travelers headed to the Copper River Valley, or farther, to Canada and the lower 48 states, and has much to offer in mountainscapes and a quiet way of life. For gifted students like Aric Cox, though, specialized educational resources are limited.

“I encourage him and his sister to make the most of what you got here. Yeah, it’s not as wonderful as ... some other place, but we make the most of it,” Sherri Cox, Aric’s mother, said.

When it comes to providing advanced academic services, Glennallen shares many challenges with other rural schools across the country: too few specialized teachers, spotty internet access, underfunded districts, a lack of access to rigorous academic content.

Carolyn Callahan, a professor in the department of curriculum, instruction, and special education at the University of Virginia, said that rural gifted students have a particular disadvantage in schooling and that Alaska may be an extreme case because of its remoteness.

“Finding gifted kids in rural schools is difficult because personnel, and trained personnel, is limited,” she said. “In a rural school of 100 elementary students, you’d only have maybe five gifted kids, maybe one for every grade level. The opportunity for a teacher to create a whole enriched curriculum for one child becomes limited.”

Callahan said Aric is lucky in one respect: His academic ability, at least, was identified. Identifying gifted students in rural communities in the first place, she said, can be just as challenging as providing advanced content to that student when resources of all kinds are low.

Aric Cox will spend the rest of the summer in Glennallen, continuing to take on challenging volunteer projects at the Copper River Community Library and the Cross Road Clinic. This fall, Cox plans to attend Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he will study computer science.

Aric, who graduated from high school last month, has been living in Glennallen nearly his entire life and has attended Glennallen School since kindergarten. The K-12 school serves 286 students in all.

This year, the graduating class numbered 14.

Personalized Learning

And Glennallen School is the largest of the three schools in the Copper River school district, which serves fewer than 450 students in an area nearly the size of Ohio.

“I feel like larger schools would offer more variety of opportunities, but at the same time, in classes here, you get to know your teachers more,” Aric said. “In a bigger school, I don’t know if that would have been possible.”

That sentiment is shared by his school’s principal, Nick Schumacher, who said the small class sizes allow for more one-on-one attention.

“I feel like in smaller communities, you have to sort of take more initiative and go look for the opportunities,” Aric said.

On his own search for opportunities, Aric discovered a passion for computer technology and helping people. He has been volunteering at the community library for the past seven years, where he sets up computers, puts books away, checks books in and out, and signs residents up for library cards, among other tasks.

A shelf at the community library where Aric volunteers holds his book recommendations for the reading public.

After the local job center closed, Aric began working on a project to create a job-search database on one of the library’s computers. He also served as a student intern at Cross Road Clinic, the main medical facility in Glennallen where his parents both work. There, he installed TVs and a teleconference center, and helped with general information-technology work.

Aric burned through his school’s most challenging courses well before he was ready to graduate. Then he took online classes and video-teleconference classes to supplement the courses the district couldn’t offer him. Those classes were often based out of Prince William Sound College, which has an office in Glennallen, schools in Anchorage, and an online school on the U.S. East Coast, called the Potter’s School.

That ability to take online courses means Cox has been luckier than many of his peers in other parts of rural Alaska.

“The internet has been a boon in many, many cases because kids like Aric have access to it,” Callahan said. “Some schools don’t even have that option.”

Downside of Online Classes

But it’s also not been an ideal option, Aric noted.

“I’ve tried to take classes from teachers in school if I can, but if not, I would look at the online options and pick what was best,” he said. "[Online classes are] very impersonal. You get the content still, but you have to decide what you’re going to do with it. You don’t have a teacher to guide you along.”

Callahan agreed that the e-learning structure can be isolating for many students.

“You’re one student online, you’re not in a community. Nationally, it’s a problem and it’s something we’ve been dealing with by trying to get more gifted students identified,” she said.

The Copper River district is a member of the League of Innovative Schools, a nationwide coalition of more than 93 schools that focus on building opportunities for students through technology. Copper River and the Sitka school system are the only two Alaskan districts in the league. This coalition recognizes the districts for their use of a video-teleconferencing system that allows students to remotely take classes that are being offered at other schools in the district.

“If a teacher in our Kenny Lake School, which is 45 miles down the road, is offering a class in, let’s say, oceanography, a student in Glennallen that wants to take it can have access to it,” Copper River schools Superintendent Tamara Van Wyhe said.

The Copper River district offers e-learning options for gifted students like Cox through various partnerships with online education portals. In all, Van Wyhe said, the district is able to offer more 300 e-learning classes. Copper River students can also receive college credits and dual credit through a partnership with Prince William Sound College.

Moreover, independent study is an option for students who want to study something the district can’t provide.

That benefited Aric when he found an Advanced Placement Calculus class at an online school that wasn’t partnered with Copper River. His district offered financial support for the class, as well as a teacher to proctor the exam.

Teacher-Hiring Challenges

While the internet has helped make finding advanced classes for students like Cox less of a challenge, recruiting teachers who are skilled at meeting the needs of gifted students—and well-qualified educators in general—has become increasingly more difficult, Van Wyhe said.

“Ten years ago or more, it was pretty easy because all we had to say was, ‘Hey, we’re on the road system.’ People wanted to come here, but the pool of candidates has been declining so dramatically over the last five years,” Van Wyhe said. “There are not as many people interested in working in rural Alaska, so our road system draw isn’t quite what it used to be.”

Van Wyhe said it can be difficult for teachers to commit to wear all the hats required in a rural district.

“If you’re a high school English teacher, you’re not going to come to a rural district and just teach high school English. You’re going to teach English and social studies, and you might have a science class, and you might be asked to teach an art class, and you might coach cross-country, and be the adviser for student council and National Honor Society and a hundred other things,” Van Wyhe said.

The Glennallen School enrolls 286 students in grades K-12. It’s in a school district that serves fewer than 450 students across an area about the size of the state of Ohio.

Van Wyhe was a teacher in and around Anchorage for a couple of years before teaching in Copper River. While a small district in rural Alaska has its challenges, Van Wyhe said it’s the social and emotional benefits that have kept her there for more than 21 years.

“We have over 400 students in our school district, and I know every single one of them,” Van Wyhe said.

Meanwhile, in Quinhagak, a small, even more remote village on Alaska’s southwestern Bering Sea coast, Robby Strunk, a high school junior and gifted student, takes most of his classes online. His favorite subject is math, but his school’s most difficult math class is Algebra 2, which Strunk took as a freshman. Strunk said there are no teachers at his school who are trained to work with gifted children. He also said that because of budget reductions last year, his school had to cut a teacher position, leaving only two teachers at his 227-student high school.

College Transition

Strunk, however, has an opportunity to further his education through the Rural Alaska Honors Institute, an intensive college-preparatory program that brings rural, Alaskan Native high school juniors and seniors from across the state to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for six weeks.

Students can earn anywhere from eight to 11 college credits in one summer through the all-expenses-paid program.

Started in 1983, it is the oldest, continuously run program for academically promising rural students in Alaska.

The program was created in partnership with the University of Alaska and the Alaska Federation of Natives, with the goal of helping students ease the transition from village to town as they gear up for college.

The program, which nearly 1,800 students have attended since its inception, receives an average of 125 applicants each year and accepts 40 to 50 of them, according to RAHI program manager Denise Waters. Students must have a 3.0 GPA and have lived in Alaska most of their lives.

Strunk has been hearing about RAHI his whole life. His four older siblings went through it, and he was accepted to attend this summer, along with 41 other students from across the state. He said he is hoping to have similar experiences, and that the program will give him a jumpstart on college.

Over six weeks, students take classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then work in a mandatory study hall from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., five days a week.

“This is not a walk in the park,” Waters said.

Students choose from two course-study options. For those with an interest in the sciences, there is RAHI Research. Students must have taken some basic biology or chemistry classes and write two essays. This summer, six students will join university researchers, and, depending on the nature of the research the university is conducting, the students will be required to go into the field, collect data, assist with research, write a research paper, and give a final presentation about their findings.

Hard Work and Opportunity

The other track, the more traditional path, gears students up for managing college life. Those students take classes in college writing, library sciences, and study skills. In the afternoon, they choose from among four different classes: an appropriate level math class, chemistry, business, and a class that teaches the process and operations of refinery, chemical, and other industry manufacturing. In the evening, a physical education class is required; Alaska Native dance, karate, and yoga are the options.

The university and the Alaska Federation of Natives were able to entirely fund the program on their own when it began in the 1980s.

“This was during the [oil] pipeline days, and there was more money,” Waters said.

But in the last 10 years, external funding and partnerships were needed to continue the program.

The state of Alaska is grappling with a recession that has left districts, schools, and students with few resources, especially for the advanced content required to challenge gifted students.

This summer, while Strunk is attending RAHI, Aric will continue volunteering at the library and at Cross Road Clinic, as well as working with his school district to put together technology guides for teachers and students to work with the devices the school plans to start using next school year. In the fall, Aric will be leaving Glennallen, and Alaska, to study computer technology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

Strunk’s longterm goal? He hopes to return to Quinhagak after college and possibly teach math at this local high school.

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2018 edition of Education Week as Gifted Resources Scarce in Alaska

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