Encouraging rural Alaska’s students to become teachers

In Alaska, roughly three out of four teachers are from out of state, and more likely to stay for a shorter period of time than those who were born and raised there. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports from the town of Dillingham, where educators are trying to encourage local and Alaska Native students to consider teaching in communities where they are desperately needed.

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    Over the last few years, a number of academic gains have been made by historically disadvantaged students, including African-Americans and Latinos. But Native American students have lost ground since 2008, with only about half earning a diploma.

    In Alaska, an effort is under way to turn that around by creating more teachers within the Native community.

    The "NewsHour"'s April Brown reports as part of our American Graduate series.


    Alaska is often called the last frontier. A phrase that seems fitting for the town of Dillingham, which sits on a remote inlet near Bristol Bay.

    For thousands of years, the area has been a hub for the Yup'ik people. Today, more than 50 percent of the roughly 2,000 residents are Alaska Natives, who continue to survive on subsistence traditions passed down through the generations. Home addresses are not a must here because everyone picks up their mail at the post office.

    And when school begins in the fall, finding Alaska Native students, who have graduation rates that hover around 50 percent statewide, can be a challenge.


    Sometimes, families go moose hunting in the fall, right when school starts. And families will take their kids and go to moose camp for a week, and so they will miss a whole week of school.


    Alaska Native Ina Bouker has been a teacher in Dillingham's schools for more than 30 years, and she's well aware of the challenges and the legacy of mistrust that exists around education here.

    Bouker was raised in the nearby village of Manokotak, at a time when American Indians and Alaska Natives were still being educated by mostly white teachers and told to shed their cultural identities. Bouker remembers well that if any students were caught speaking Yup'ik:


    Then we had a ruler slapped to our hand like this, not real hard, but, you know, enough of a slap to make us scared and remember not to speak in Yup'ik.


    But even after three decades, Bouker remains a rarity here. Only 5 percent of the state's teachers are Alaska natives and some towns and villages lose nearly a third of their teaching staff every year.


    Some teachers, brand-new teachers cannot handle it, and they — some of them leave even after five days, two weeks, two months, six months, by Christmas. Most of them will leave within a year or two.


    Across Alaska, roughly three out of four teachers are from out of state, and studies have shown that those teachers stay for shorter periods of time than teachers born and raised here. This, Bouker says, has had a crippling effect on students.


    Some of our students start feeling like, well, why should I work hard for you? Why should I do that assignment? Because you are not going to be here anyway next year.


    There's only two real ways to get to Dillingham, by boat or by plane. Most people come by air. When you get here, gas is about $7 a gallon. There are no movie theaters or big box stores. And those are just some of the reasons why many teachers don't stay.

  • WILLIAM SCHWAN, Dillingham Middle/High School:

    To tell a funny story, a teacher got off the plane, looked around, and got right back on the plane and flew home. So that's happened here.


    William Schwan is the principal of Dillingham's Middle and High School, which serves about 270 kids. He says that high teacher turnover is not his only problem. According to Schwan, schools like his need teachers who know or are willing to learn about the Yup'ik culture and way of life, but they have been difficult to find.


    Very few Native candidates. I mean very few. And so I'm not going to say I always look at them first, but in the last couple of years, there just hasn't been a long line waiting to get into Dillingham with folks who are from the Native culture or Yup'ik culture that want to come out looking for jobs.


    That's precisely what Ina Bouker has been trying to change. In 2007, shortly after being named Alaska teacher of the year, Bouker began writing a curriculum for a statewide program known as the Future Educators of Alaska.

    Since then, state and federal grants of more than $5.5 million have been used to encourage local and Alaska Native students to consider careers in education, and then work in small towns and village schools where they're desperately needed.


    We wanted to have the kids explore all the different jobs within a school, not only teaching, but cooks, janitors, classroom aides, bus drivers and, I mean, the list goes on and on and on.


    That list also includes administrators, who, having grown up here, would likely be more sensitive to the needs of the community and more willing to stay.

    Ricky Lind Jr. is now one of them. Currently dean of students, he went to Dillingham's schools, graduated from college and first came back to teach music.

  • RICKY LIND JR., Dillingham Middle/High School:

    I have seen five principals, so I felt that with the administration turnover, I wanted to help my school on a different level. There's things I wanted to do that I couldn't do as music director, so I thought this was the best way to help on a larger scale.


    Now the effort to grow their own educators starts early with kindergartners, in part by incorporating lessons on Native customs and culture in the classroom. That curriculum, Bouker says, also has the added benefit of making school more relevant to everyday life.


    I will say, you are going to write about something you have done within subsistence the last month. That is a motivation because they are the expert in that particular topic, not the first-year teacher who doesn't know anything about hunting.


    Current students in the program, including Dillingham senior Sassa Williams, earn both high school and college credit accepted by Alaska's public universities.

    Sassa and her family are Yup'ik and, like their forefathers, rely heavily upon fishing, hunting and picking berries for food.

    Ina Bouker has been Sassa's teacher on and off since kindergarten.

  • SASSA WILLIAMS, Dillingham Middle/High School:

    It is definitely nice having that teacher that you have grown up with and, like, being able to talk to them about things other than school. Like, I can go up to Ina and be like, hey, I'm having problems with this and this, and totally be comfortable about it. And then there are some other teachers in the school who I would never in a million years tell them about my problems.

    So, it's really, really nice having that relationship with her.


    Lorrene Chiklak was also mentored by Bouker in Dillingham. She graduated from high school last year and is studying elementary education at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

    Now a sophomore, Chiklak says there were times in high school that she struggled academically and calls Bouker a hero for getting her to graduation and where she is today. She now wants to become a teacher for one simple reason.

    LORRENE CHIKLAK, University of Alaska-Anchorage: When you see a child struggling to understand something and then to really teach them to understand it, and then they finally get it, the look on their face is priceless, like, whoa, I finally understand something that I didn't understand before.


    On a larger scale, the problems around boosting academic performance and graduation rates among American Indians and Native Alaskans remain numerous and complex.

    But Ahniwake Rose, the executive director for the National Indian Education Association in Washington, D.C., says the effort to grow Native teachers is a good start.

  • AHNIWAKE ROSE, Executive Director, National Indian Education Association:

    You know, it's time for us to really stand up and say, you know what, we're going to take back the inherent right that we have to educate our own citizens.

    We know that our students are going to do better when they have those faces and similar cultural experiences. That's not just in Indian country, though. That's across the board, right? We have seen the same movement in African-American communities, the same movements in Latino communities.


    As for Ina Bouker, she says she's glad that students like Sassa and Lorrene are considering coming back to Dillingham to continue the work she's started.


    I have completed my circle, and I need to give the torch and pass the torch to someone else who will possibly do a way better job than me.


    I'm April Brown for the "PBS NewsHour" in Dillingham, Alaska.


    American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.