Cultural education in Alaska: helping Alaska native students find the path to success.

Author:Perry, Richard
Position::Alaska Native Business
 
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Sitka's Mt. Edgecumbe High School, which has a high enrollment of Alaska Native students, is one of the top educational facilities in the nation. It has a 90 percent minority enrollment, 79 percent of whom are Alaska Native students with a graduation rate of 98 percent. Yet, Alaska Native student graduation rates in other schools across the state are by far disproportionately worse than nearly all other student categories.

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As a comparison, according to the 2015-2016 Alaska State Report Card to the Public, the only groups that performed worse were students with disabilities (53.9 percent) and English learners (54.7 percent). The difference between the best performing student and Alaska Native students is as much as 16 percent.

Professor of Education Policy Dr. Diane Hirshberg from the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage explains that there has been a consistent problem attracting and retaining teachers who possess the tools to succeed with rural and Alaska Native students.

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In 2010, Alaska adopted the four-year cohort graduation rate method required by the US Department of Education. Alaska high school students are assigned a cohort year based on when they first enter ninth grade. The assumption is that students are expected to graduate in four years.

"Statewide, the four-year high school graduation rate for all students in 2015-2016 was 76.1 percent," Hirshberg says. "This was lower for students who are Alaska Native or American Indian (64.1 percent), African American (74.4 percent), or economically disadvantaged (68.4 percent). Dropout rates reflect similar inequality; the statewide dropout rate for grades 7-12 was 3.9 percent, but for Alaska Native/American Indian students it was 6.7 percent and 4.5 percent for African American students."

Low graduation rates for Alaska Native students is not a new issue; it has been an ongoing challenge for educators and policy makers for decades. The issues concerning Alaska Native student success are known elements. Dropout rates are higher for Alaska Native students, and more often than not, male Alaska Native students.

"While the student population in rural Alaska is primarily indigenous, the educators in rural schools are overwhelmingly non-Native," Hirshberg says. "Fewer than 5 percent of certificated teachers are indigenous, and fewer yet are administrators. Most of the educators are also from outside Alaska; between 2008 and 2012 the University of Alaska prepared fewer than 15 percent of the teachers hired by districts each year."

Another longstanding issue is the manner in which Western education was introduced to the Alaska Native population. The experiences of previous generations of Alaska Native people were fraught with social and political adversity. There is a need to better understand the impact of intergenerational trauma associated with Alaska Native students, their families, and communities.

"Many rural villages in Alaska struggle with social problems that are a...

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