Local control is not simply the political power that comes with Native membership
on regional school boards. It's parents
taking charge of schools_having a say in teacher hiring, writing the curriculum and spending money.
``If there's ever going to be quality education and positive changes in rural
Alaska, you have to have the people directly
involved,'' says former teacher Shirley Moses.
Twenty years ago, the state Legislature tried to promote local control by
approving regional school districts in the Bush,
known as Regional Education Attendance Areas. Residents in each new REAA elected five to 11 school board members.
Ever since, regional school boards have been in charge of hiring and firing, purchasing goods and services and approving
In districts like the Yukon-Koyukuk, the REAA board members are all Natives.
Communities also elect local members of a
school advisory committee to make recommendations to the regional school board.
But these advisory committees have no real power over schools, by state law.
And regional school boards are too big, some
say, to have meaningful local control.
``Native control is an illusion,'' says University of Alaska Education Professor Ray Barnhardt.
Eleanor Yatlin, a mother of six in Bettles and a Yukon-Koyukuk regional school
board member, says it's frustrating making
decisions about nine schools she visits about once a year. She keeps in touch with her district through relatives, friends and
community advisory board members.
``It's hard, it's difficult and some decisions I make, I just learn to live
with it,'' says Yatlin, who is Athabaskan. ``We're so
spread apart, you know.''
Handing out advice to faraway schools is not good enough, says Moses, the
former Bush teacher. Last year, Moses was the
sole teacher for 15 students at Lime Village School, on the banks of the Stony River in the Alaska Range. The village had no
member on the regional school board_and, Moses says, the children suffered for it.
The furnace and generator break often, the floor sags, the classroom lights
are dim. Moses calls it a Band-Aid operation.
``Kids never knew if the school was going to be warm, if there would be lights on or water.''
In the Glenn Highway community of Chickaloon, near Palmer, parents gave up
trying to adapt to the surrounding
Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. They opened their own private school last year for their six students.
Ya Ne Dah Ah School takes up a corner of the run-down blue building that houses
the Chickaloon Village office. The
Bureau of Indian Affairs had declared the space condemned.
Since it doesn't receive any state education money, the school is free to
set its own curriculum. The school subsists on small
private grants and the Indian village's funds.
The idea sprang from a Saturday school for dancing, singing and language.
Mornings at Ya Ne Dah Ah are devoted to
Western-style correspondence studies. In the afternoon, clan grandmother Katherine Wade teaches Native stories, songs and
Athabaskan words and phrases.
``This way, it's controlled by the community and reflects the values and culture
of the community,'' says teacher Cati Carmen,
a member of the Yaqui tribe in Arizona.
Carmen handles six students in grades two through 10. Every afternoon the
students mop, dust and clean the school to learn
Native values of respect and helping others.
Some parents work in the same building and take part in afternoon activities.
A few make presentations on such Native
values as respect for animals and the environment during hunting.
``Everyone has something to offer,'' Carmen says. ``Their education is really
connected to their reality.''
"On the Edge: Do Bush Schools Measure Up?"
By Wendy Hower and Kristan Kelly, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Part Four
NULATO_Twenty-five yelping huskies greet principal Maurice McGinty when he comes home from school.
His breath fogs as he drives his ax through frozen spruce logs and kindles
a fire. He hauls water from a nearby well and
mixes it with chunks of frozen salmon and whitefish he caught last summer.
The dog food bubbles, filling the air with a pungent fish smell. The next
several hours he devotes to the team he wants to
race in the 1998 Iditarod.
Beyond his mushing aspirations, McGinty is a rarity in the Bush. He is Nulato's
first Native principal and one of six Native
principals of the 151 in the state. Natives head only two of the state's 49 rural school districts. Fewer than 10 percent of rural
teachers are Native; most come from the Lower 48.
Even now, 20 years after the Molly Hootch settlement paved the way for local
control of Bush high schools, outsiders still
Many Bush parents believe that if Natives taught and ran the schools, their
children would learn more. Native teachers and
administrators understand the culture and could blend it into the curriculum.
Yet even that might not work.
In Nulato, principal McGinty and five of eight regular classroom teachers
are Native, as are nine support staffers and the
school board overseeing it all. But the school limps along like others in the Bush, McGinty says, because its students trip
over the obstacles put up by dysfunctional families. The community leaves schooling to outsiders. Students carry that
disinterest into the classroom. ``I think it's unreasonable for Natives to think the school system is failing when we ourselves
are failing the children,'' says Yupik Harold Napoleon, who promotes community awareness around the Bush. ``We don't
provide them with what they need most_a stable home."
Being a Native teacher is not enough.
Although he grew up here, McGinty faces the same problem an imported principal
might_parents uninvolved in their
children's education. They don't show up for his student/teacher conferences. They don't visit the school except for
McGinty says his staff has tried to involve parents and thus improve their children's education.
``It has all failed because the minute they leave the school, they see a totally
different set of values from their parents,'' he
says. ``These poor kids live in two worlds.''
This is what one of those worlds contains, according to the 1994 Alaska Natives
Commission report to Congress: In
villages, reports of alcoholism, suicide and child abuse are far more common than elsewhere in the state. In the 1980s,
alcoholism killed 3.5 times more Natives than non-Natives. Alaska Native children are born with the irreversible retardation
linked with fetal alcohol syndrome at a rate 2.5 times the national average. Native mortality is three times the national average
per 10,000, and life expectancy is 63.6 years for Natives while it's 71.8 years for whites in Alaska.
The birth rate among Alaska Native teens is 2.5 times the national average.
Unemployment is high, hovering around 60
percent of the working-age population in most villages. About 21.5 percent of Alaska Native families report below-poverty
incomes_triple the statewide rate. Alaska Natives constitute 32 percent of the jail population despite making up only 13.5
percent of the Alaska prison-age population. The murder rate among Alaska Natives is four times the national average.
``School for a lot of these children is a place to rest_a temporary escape,''
Napoleon says. ``They're much too preoccupied
with what's going on at home.''
Alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome and fractured families are new burdens
for Alaska Natives. Before significant white
contact in the 19th century, such problems did not exist in Native society.
Outsiders brought disease and epidemics to Alaska, doing more than physically
ravaging Natives. They all but destroyed
their faith. Shaman spells and tribal medicine could not stop the spread of smallpox and influenza.
By 1910 white diseases had killed two-thirds of the Native population. Entire
villages died. Orphanages were created to raise
hundreds of Native children. Chiefs, artists and oral historians died with no one trained to replace them.
``The death rate was so massive,'' says Athabaskan Miranda Wright, executive
director of the Doyon Foundation and who
recently earned a master's degree in cultural anthropology at UAF. ``Their leadership was lost to a certain degree.''
Those who survived were ripe for the message of missionaries who offered Christianity
and Western values as a life
preserver to pull Natives from their sea of ``sinful, heathen'' ways.
Whites brought electricity, airplanes and, most importantly, medicine. Natives
did as they were told; they were a dispirited
group making choices amid chaos.
``All they knew is this guy has aspirin and it works whereas that shaman over
there is making a lot of noise and it's not
working,'' Napoleon says. ``I'm not sure if they realized exactly what they were doing, or the theology of what was being
From there the self-determination of Natives further eroded, eventually becoming
totally reliant on outsiders. The
government built them homes, paid them money if they didn't have jobs, and gave them food stamps so they didn't need to
hunt and fish.
What happened socially in the villages was mirrored in the education of their children.
Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and the general agent of education
in the Alaska territory in the 1890s, evoked a
policy that forbade Native languages to be spoken in the schools. Natives resigned control, says Wright. ``Why fight it if
we're going to learn anything from it?''
Natives lost the old way of the entire tribe using the world as a classroom to teach life skills critical to the tribe's survival.
Ellen Frank witnessed the change.
In the marshlands of Minto Flats, the 73-year-old remembers, moonlight would
glow through the walls of the family's tent.
The family lived there year-round, her mother telling stories about Big Giant and Old Crow and teaching how to butcher
animals, sew fur and prepare food.
She learned to tan a moose skin, soaking it in soap for softness. All night,
she and her mother would sit and rub the skin by
hand, she explains, rubbing her knuckles together with a raspy sound. ``It's a lot of work.''
The promise of a better, easier, lifestyle lured Frank to the white-run missionary school in Old Minto.
``You just push a button on wall and the light came on,'' she says, laughing.
``It was really something for me, because the
way we grow up it seemed too good to be true.''
Within Frank's lifetime, elders, hunters and skin sewers ceased to be the children's primary teachers.
``The people lost control,'' Wright says. ``They more or less gave up, particularly with education.''
Children don't learn much when village communities believe it's someone else's job to educate their youth, Napoleon says.
``The kids are not told (their education) is critical for their survival,''
he says. ``They get the message that it's not that
important, but it is.''
Now, Natives are moving to regain control of their young's education.
Yet, that is more than having an all-local school board, hiring teachers and
setting the curriculum, experts say. Instead, local
control is about personal responsibility. It means parents and community members viewing the school as their own: visiting
the school often, helping in the classrooms, and providing learning activities for the kids after school.
To do that communities need to be sober and provide their children a safe and stable place to live outside the schools.
``We do know there is a problem,'' Napoleon says. ``And it's not with the
federal government; it's not with the state. It's with
Seventy-year-old Henry Akada pulls his chair in a circle with other parents
and elders to talk about their childhood
education. Laughter fills the room as they remember Dick, Jane, Puff and Spot.
It's Nulato's first community meeting of the Yukon-Koyukuk School District's
state-funded Onward to Excellence program,
aimed at involving the community in the high school by setting goals and philosophy.
It's a far cry from the 1880s, when Nulato's one-room Catholic mission school
reigned over student discipline, values and
book learning. ``School was hauling wood. There was no recess, nothing,'' Akada recalls about his education in the 1930s.
``Life is easy now. Too easy. That's how these kids don't know nothing about
life,'' he says. ``I don't see how those kids
can't learn. They have good light. Nowadays they have everything.''
But they don't. The thing they need most to succeed_family support_is missing.
Outsiders have run Bush schools for so
long, some parents don't know their role. They don't help in classrooms, read to their children, set strict homework rules. In
Nulato, the Catholic mission school instilled the Ten Commandments as a moral code in its students, who are now parents
and grandparents. But some of them haven't picked up where the church left off.
``Kids nowadays don't know the difference between right and wrong,'' says
parent Victor Nicholas. ``Nobody's telling them
The Onward to Excellence program is designed to guide parents and elders back into the high schools.
``These aren't our schools anymore,'' says Superintendent Glenn Olson. ``It's
the community's school. ... Because principals
will come and go.''
Indeed, McGinty plans to retire from Nulato's high school next year to run
his dogs and live off the land. Still, he cares
about the future of his students. With the community's embrace of the new program, McGinty is departing from his
oft-gloomy outlook of the school's future.
Parents have started dropping by the school. Attendance grows with each new meeting.
``Yes, I have hope,'' he says. ``We can only move forward.''
Bush schools, which teach a quarter of the state's 120,000 school-age children,
received close to half of the $668 million the state is spending on kindergarten
through 12th-grade education this year.
Statewide, education costs about $8,700 per student, but in the Bush that jumps to $13,500.
Legislators know the high cost of living in the Bush makes education there
more costly than in urban schools. Still, Halford and other lawmakers worry
excess. The Aleutian island of Atka, for example, the farthest-west school district in the United States, will spend $32,783 on each of its 21 students this year.
``There are areas in the state where it costs more educating a third-grader
than it does to send a kid to Harvard,'' says Anchorage Republican Con Bunde,
co-chairman of the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee.
Alaska's far-flung system of village high schools is the legacy of Molly Hootch, a 15-year-old Eskimo girl from the Bering Sea village of Emmonak.
Until 1976, most high-schoolers were put on a plane and sent to a government-run
or private boarding school in Alaska or out of state. Others were sent to
boarding homes and attended public schools in cities or larger villages. Emmonak parent William Trader, in an early 1970s documentary film, described the
sadness of his daughter leaving for boarding school.
``If I happened to die suddenly or had heart attack or something,'' Trader
says, ``and she heard about me in school and she rushed home ... I don't know
gonna feel if she saw me lying down and covered with a white sheet and she can't ask me no questions.''
Villages and families were forced apart.
``The communities were systematically being dismantled. That was what the
(boarding) schools were doing,'' says linguist Michael Krauss, director of
Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Moreover, boarding schools were cheating most students academically. A 1973 study by UAF
researcher Judith Kleinfeld found that nearly 55 percent of village students dropped out of boarding school or hopped from one to another. Almost 70 percent of
the students in the study misbehaved, abused alcohol, or were homesick.
The students' plight touched attorney Chris Cooke. Living in the Southwest
village of Bethel, he watched boarding school dropouts return home and miss
out on an
``Once they got home,'' he says, ``they were forgotten by the system.'' Emmonak
villagers circulated a petition, signed by young Hootch and her classmates,
for a local high school that would preserve family life, Native language and culture. Martin Moore, the area's Democratic state representative, asked Cooke to visit
Emmonak. A well-attended village meeting resulted in the lawsuit brought by Cooke.
In a court-supervised settlement in 1976, the state Department of Education
agreed to build a high school for every community that had an elementary school
least one secondary student.
Never again would children be forced to leave their parents for state-run
boarding schools or city boarding homes. The Hootch settlement_backed by nearly
million of fast-flowing oil money_paid for school buildings within walking distance of nearly every rural high school student in Alaska. ``It allowed families to
stay intact,'' says Clara Johnson, the Athabaskan director of UAF's Interior-Aleutians campus. ``It also allowed communities to have more say in high schools.''
Alaska has 210 rural high schools, usually the dominant structures in villages
with no running water, paved streets, restaurants, movie theaters or cars.
fewer than 100 students.
Their 49 school districts are scattered from the tundra coast of the Arctic
Ocean through the river villages of the Interior, across the Southwest muskeg,
along the rocky Aleutians. They are in the southeast rain forests of the Panhandle.
The three largest rural districts, all in the Interior, encompass 208,848
square miles_an area larger than California. High school basketball players
Carhartt overalls and crowd aboard small airplanes just to play a game at the nearest school, hundreds of miles away.
The labs and libraries of these village schools are stocked with laser karaoke
players, electric microscopes, and CD-ROM computers linked to the Internet,
in by airplane.
Teachers, who usually run multi-grade classes of fewer than 15 students, often
come from non-Native communities outside Alaska. Non-teaching superintendents
earn more than the governor.
Students who live too far from villages also receive the benefits of public
school. Teachers make regular visits, carrying computers and textbooks to remote
schools by way of skiplane and dog sled.
In a few villages, the system erected around the Molly Hootch settlement works
well. Experts point to islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity_high schools
excel one year and flounder the next as teachers come and go.
UAF's Kleinfeld has observed a curriculum rivaling ``a fine private school''
in some schools, and the monotony of ``endless worksheets marching across students'
desks'' in others.
Most schools report no dropouts, near-perfect attendance and the promotion of all students to the next grade.
But by most academic standards, Molly Hootch schools fail.
Tenth-graders in central Alaska's Yukon Flats School District, for example,
rank at the 31st percentile nationally for math and the 32nd percentile nationally
written expression on standardized tests. Scores lower than the 50th percentile are below the national average.
By comparison, Fairbanks 10th-graders place in about the 60th percentile nationally for both written expression and math.
In college, many graduates of Bush high schools can't keep up. About 30 percent
of the University of Alaska's new student enrollment last year came from rural
communities. Yet rural students accounted for more than half the students in college remedial courses.
As for dropouts, the university does not keep track of how many rural students
stay after freshman year. But in 1986 a UAF researcher pegged the dropout rate
And while the Molly Hootch schools have made progress in preserving Native
culture, as they were created to do, the result is unsatisfactory for many:
loss of language and way of life has simply been slowed, not reversed. Native leaders complain that few children can communicate with their elders_despite
expensive bilingual programs.
Professor Oscar Kawagley, a Yupik Eskimo with a doctorate in social and education
studies at UAF, has his reasons for the high schools' failure. One teacher
do it all. And students are not exposed to enough art, music, Native culture or high-level math in rural schools.
``There are a few that are working, but there are many others that really
fail the rural students,'' Kawagley says of the rural schools. ``We shortchange
Before giving the graduation speech at Minto High School last May, Georgianna
Lincoln, the Athabaskan Democratic state senator from Rampart, sits outside
the dirt. Her long black hair sweeps her lap as she turns her sunglasses onto the dappled blue marsh waters of Minto Flats. Up the road, a friend is cooking up a
springtime delicacy_duck soup.
She can almost taste it.
But her mood darkens as she talks about the future of Minto High School and other Molly Hootch schools.
A growing number of legislators want to save money by sending more Bush students
to Mount Edgecumbe boarding school and consolidating small village high
schools. It's a bad idea, she says.
``I want those senators to sit here,'' she says, gesturing toward the ground.
``People are so tied to this land that it's hard to explain to someone.'' New
rustle, dogs bark, an old truck rumbles in the distance. Cabin doors, as usual, are open in welcome.
``You can't get the traditional Native foods in Safeway,'' she says. ``Where could you get this family feeling in Fairbanks?''
And yet, Lincoln is one of the harshest critics of Molly Hootch schools. Graduates
of these small schools are ill-equipped for either village life or the Western
mainstream, she says. ``I don't think we've prepared them to do anything.'' School officials argue it's unfair to measure Bush schools by test scores, the standard
measuring stick for urban schools. The scores lag because the tests are culturally biased against Natives, they say. A pupil in the Yukon River village of Tanana, for
example, might be hard-pressed to comprehend a word problem about street curbs or dialing 911 in an emergency.
Yukon-Koyukuk district officials say village children don't come to school
as well prepared as their urban counterparts. Kindergartners rank in about
percentile nationally on standardized tests. By the time they reach senior year, they've improved to about the 50th percentile nationally. Other Bush school districts
report similar gains but remain below the national average.
In Fairbanks, students start out at the 60th percentile nationally and maintain that average through high school.
A 1991 study by Kleinfeld and others for the Alaska Educational Research Association
says standardized tests are a fair measure of Bush schools. High schools
are supposed to be teaching general knowledge and academic skills of mainstream society.
``These are skills important to balancing a checkbook, doing well in college,
working effectively in a business or agency or reading a newspaper with
understanding,'' the report reads.
Back in Bettles, Solomon Yatlin pulls off his earphones and joins his eight
classmates in the main classroom. Florence Nictune, a respected 65-year-old
come on one of her regular visits to teach Inupiaq culture. Sun streams through the windows as Solomon twists a wooden shuttle through loops and knots of
sea-green twine. A fish net springs from his hands and trails on the floor at his feet.
Nictune looks on approvingly, her face serene in a blue gingham kerchief. The other students crowd around Solomon's chair.
``Pull it tight,'' Solomon explains to 8-year-old Naomi Wright. ``Then throw it over the rope.''
Grownups call it ``peer teaching,'' a tool that sometimes holds Solomon's
interest in his preteen classmates. Boredom and lack of friends are his frequent
complaints at school.
Still, he plans to graduate next year and follow his four older siblings from
Bettles Field School to college. One sister is studying business at the University
Tulsa, a brother is majoring in computer science at UAF, another sister studies fashion design at American College in Los Angeles and a third sister earned an
associate's degree in sociology and works summers for the National Park Service.
``Of course I will,'' he says. ``Everyone else in my family has gone to college.''