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Students file out of aging Akiachak Elementary School at the end of a school day in late October. Building maintenance is just one of several daunting challenges faced by the Yupiit School District. School aide Maggie Williams teaches a lesson in Nancy Strand's second- and third-grade classroom in Akiak in late October. Williams is pursuing a college degree through correspondence courses so she can get her teaching certificate.Yupiit School District superintendent Joe Slats chats with Sharon Anderson, the district's new reading coordinator, in his office. Slats is the first Native from the area to become superintendent.Cultural aide Peggy Peter assists in Helena Gladke's kindergarten classroom in Akiachak. A Yup'ik immersion program begins in Akiachak next semester, and several Yupiit School District aides are working toward classroom certification so they can get full-time teaching positions.A student's picture identifying family members in Yup'ik is part of a hallway display in Akiachak Elementary School. A Yup'ik immersion program will begin next semester at the school.A floodwater chart reminds Akiak students that their school buildings are not elevated enough to escape flooding by the Kuskokwim River.After $165,000 in repairs, the boys' bathroom in Akiak floods as Ernest Demantle tries to assess the situation.
|A student's picture identifying family members in Yup'ik is part of a hallway display in Akiachak Elementary School. A Yup'ik immersion program will begin next semester at the school.|
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|Ron Engstrom, Anchorage Daily News|
AKIACHAK -- Shortly before the school year began, the bathrooms of Arlicaq High School in Akiak fell in. Or just about. The rotting floor underneath and around the rooms sagged when you stepped on them. Overhead, above the toilets, tons of boilers and mechanical equipment teetered.
"There was a hole in front of the girls bathroom about that big," said Joe Slats, superintendent of the Yupiit School District, making a 9-inch circle with his hands. "You could look through it and see sand."
The bathrooms were deemed unsafe, but no place else in the Yup'ik Eskimo village of 338 offered enough space to hold classes. School officials shipped in a pair of portable outdoor toilets, and a Bethel contractor flew out to make repairs. The patch-up cost $165,000. Classes began on schedule while repairs were under way.
The Yupiit School District consists of three Native villages east of Bethel: Akiachak (site of district headquarters), Akiak and Tuluksak. The district has 422 students and a budget just over $6 million.
Urban Alaskans often complain about how much money gets spent on education in the Bush. Rural residents say city folks can't comprehend what it's like to struggle with off-the-road freight costs, crumbling facilities, high teacher turnover and disheartened students.
Bush administrators point out that Anchorage has the lowest prices in Alaska and that city school districts benefit from an economy of size that can't be reproduced in isolated hamlets scattered across wilderness. It's more than bucks, they add. There's a grind to trying to provide education in a place where basics like housing and water are daily question marks, where supplies sometimes do not arrive, where weather turns schedules into dice games.
The Yupiit district may run low on material resources, but it's not short of ideas. Several ambitious, even radical, programs are afoot that officials hope will improve the quality of education for their students. From their perspective, the average Anchorage resident doesn't seem aware that people live west of Fire Island. But they do. Here's how they see things.
School Aide Maggie Williams teaches a lesson in Nancy Strand's second-and third grade classroom in Akiak in late October. Williams is pursuing a college degree through correspondence courses so she can get her teaching certificate.
"Yupiit" is the plural of "Yup'ik." That this is Yup'ik country is made clear by the Yup'ik sign on superintendent Slats' door: "Elitnaurviit Atanrat" -- "boss of the schools." Born in Chevak, Slats is the first Native from this area to become a district superintendent. He's the fourth person to hold the job in the past six years. That turnstile situation has kept good programs from taking root, he said.
Yupiit School District superintendent Joe Slats chats with Sharon Anderson, the district's new reading coordinator, in his office. Slats is the first Native from the area to become superintendent.
Slats hopes to overcome the problem of short-term teachers by building up community involvement in school programs. One item on his agenda is bringing Yup'ik language instruction into district elementary schools.
A Yup'ik language immersion program is set to begin in Akiachak next semester. Within a couple of years, all instruction from kindergarten through second grade will be in Yup'ik. In third grade, a transition to English will begin.
On the other end of the educational scale, the district board has mandated that staff take a university-level course in Yup'ik thought and culture. Dubbed "Yaaveskaniryaraq" -- "moving forward" -- the accredited program is based on the Clemente Course in the Humanities that originated in New York and is now taught around the world. Retired Native professor Cecilia Martz inaugurated the course last year in Chevak.
"Look at the students who went through her program, before and after," Slats said. "Look at how much more confidence they had. They're a lot more talkative."
Yaaveskaniryaraq will get elders and youth together, speaking a high level of Yup'ik, he said. The course should also open up the educational enclave and help it become more aware of village life.
"In these villages, we tend to build our own little isolated school community," he said. Slats also hopes the schools can help start Boys and Girls Clubs in the villages "so kids will have something to do instead of just walking back and forth and getting into trouble."
Slats popped into Akiachak's elementary school, were girls crowded a new computer room. In this program, students come in after hours to take self-directed tests in math and writing, geared toward helping them pass state-mandated tests. Once they finish the tutorial, they're free to use the computers for entertainment. Just before Halloween, early finishers were playing computer games and surfing the Net. One teen had called up a Britney Spears Web site. Another was exchanging e-mail with a friend in a different town.
But not all of the computers were functioning properly. Slats started checking connections, double-clicking, wiggling cords in a wiring box that looked like a pile of spaghetti.
"You end up doing a lot of things out here," he said. "Troubleshooting, networking, wiring."
Cultural aide Peggy Peter assists in Helena Gladke's kindergarten classroom in Akiachak. A Yup'ik immersion program begins in Akiachak next semester, and several Yupiit School District aides are working toward classroom certification so they can get full-time teaching positions.
Juggling the unexpected is nothing new to Akiachak principal Frank Schneider. When he first came to town as the new shop teacher 20 years ago, his supervisor asked, "Do you know anything about carpentry?" Schneider said he had a little experience. "Good. Your first project will be to build your shop."
"I think every year I taught something I'd never taught before," he said. Schneider said a big hurdle facing the district is logistics. "It's not like you can go to a hardware store or an Office Depot. You're always thinking a year ahead." When orders are mixed up, it can take months to straighten them out.
He advised teachers coming to the Bush to be "adaptable, flexible, have a sense of humor and don't get too uptight."
Too many teachers arrive with misconceptions about Alaska, he said.
"They think they're coming to the Alaska of clear-running streams and mountains with a moose outside their door. They get here, and it's not what they expect. Others come and try to change the people instead of accepting them."
Schneider has stuck around so long because he married into the community. But even after 20 years, he said, "I can still feel like I'm outside, looking through a hole."
Still, he's seen progress. "When I first got here, there were very few high school graduates. Now there are some college grads in the village. We're trying to inch the bar up. We're counting tardies now, raising standards of behavior. We're moving in the right direction, but it's going to take some time."
Schneider said the Yup'ik immersion program is feasible in Akiachak. "But it's not going to be an easy process" because of a dearth of Yup'ik-speaking certified teachers.
Some classroom aides are working toward teaching degrees through a series of long-distance courses offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Mary Ann Lomack expects to become a certified teacher next year. It's not easy. Her first language is Yup'ik, the test is in English. She's taking on a new career at a time in life when other women are retiring or counting their grandchildren. Still, she seems determined to see it through for the sake of the community where she's always lived.
"It's not my decision," she said. "It's what the parents here want."
Plans call for her to take over kindergarten in January. The non-Native kindergarten and first-grade teachers will shuffle up a grade to stay ahead of students progressing in a language that the teachers don't speak. Both teachers expect to leave the district within a year or two.
The Yup'ik language program was a main reason why high school language instructor Jeneva Sam chose to come here. Sam, an Athabaskan from Huslia, has spent all of her two-year classroom career in Akiachak.
"At home, our language is gone," she said. "I want to see how they make the program happen."
Theoretically, language skills gained in Yup'ik immersion primary classes should transfer to English by the time Sam gets these students in high school. Will it work?
"I guess we won't find out until 12 years from now," she said.
A floodwater chart reminds Akiak students that their school buildings are not elevated enough to escape flooding by the Kuskokwim River.
In good weather, Akiak is eight miles from district headquarters in Akiachak. At the end of last month, it seemed as distant as Tibet. Ice was moving on the Kuskokwim, and the tundra between the towns had not yet frozen. Travel by boat or snowmachine was impossible. Fog in Bethel grounded planes, the main means of transport for both staff and students within the district. It's one of those major expenses that schools on the road system never have to bear.
The principal's office at Akiak's Arlicaq School sits next to the recently fixed bathrooms. The room also holds the desk of the school secretary, the faculty lounge and the staff time clock.
One afternoon last month, with no possibility of privacy, principal Rod Pruett and a teacher calmed a parent distressed over her child's grades. The secretary worked the radio trying to arrange flights to district headquarters in Akiachak, the counselor talked to a depressed student, maintenance personnel punched time cards and a copier technician, flown in from Anchorage, fretted over what had happened to a part he needed to install a machine.
"I'd be completely consumed with these details if I had not been in the Bush so long," Pruett said. Pruett was a commercial fisherman for many years before teaching in Southeast, the Lower 48 and Bristol Bay. His master's thesis involved teacher retention in rural Alaska. The thesis listed steps to ease teacher turnover. Rural teachers should get certified in several subjects, he said, because they'll have to teach a variety of topics. "You need a specialty, preferably in a couple of departments."
Specific courses should be designed for potential Bush educators, he said, and they should do their student teaching in a rural school, "long enough to let the honeymoon pass. My first assignment was a 13-student school in Elfin Cove and it was like 'Holy camoley! Nobody prepared me for this.' "
Under Pruett's plan, Bush teachers would receive a "rural certification" for their extra efforts, and the certificate would entitle them to higher pay.
As in Akiachak, Yup'ik-speaking teacher aides in Akiak are now preparing for standard state certification. Pruett is confident that they'll make good teachers, but he worries that, once certified, they'll be able to teach anywhere. In a market where qualified instructors are in high demand, "they could get vacuumed right out of here."
Yup'ik is not as widely spoken in Akiak as it is in Akiachak. Still, Pruett said, it's important that the Yup'ik immersion program succeed at his school. The continuing viability of the Native language in Yup'ik country attracted him to the area.
"If you don't have a language, you might as well archive your culture," he said.
After $165,000 in repairs, the boys' bathroom at Arlicaq High School in Akiak floods as Ernest Demantle tries to assess the situation.
Pruett said Yupiit school board president Mike Williams convinced him to come to Akiak. Williams is well-known for running the Iditarod sled dog race to promote sobriety. A member of the state board of education and president of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Williams sees education as essential to Native self-determination.
"Ignorance is our greatest enemy," he said.
And low pay has become one of the greatest obstacles. A decade ago, the average teacher salary in Alaska was the highest in the nation. Last year, after adjusting for the cost of living, it slipped to 20th, according to the American Federation of Teachers.
"Ten years ago, we had 1,500 applicants for 500 positions in Alaska," Williams recalled. "At the last job fair we had 400 applicants." The state-mandated graduation exam looms large for rural students. "About 25 percent of the students won't make it," Williams said. "Are we going to discard them? Are they just going to fall off a cliff? Or are we going to start teaching to the test? A lot of questions have not been answered."
Williams would like to see a central high school, probably in Akiak, where students would board during the week. They'd return home to Akiachak and Tuluksak on weekends -- easily done by snowmachine or four-wheel-drive for much of the school year, once the snow comes.
Principal Pruett thinks such a school would help enforce attendance and provide more courses.
"One of the problems with Molly Hootch" -- the lawsuit that led to the establishment of high schools in small villages -- "is that it gave us schools this size, where we're really treading water. We have only 32 students, as few as 20 attending on some days, and three teachers. How do you teach chemistry or physics like that? With 150 kids, we could offer real programs."
His discussion of future dreams was interrupted by a present emergency. The latrine in the recently fixed boys bathroom was gushing water onto the new floor. Before the repairs, a local shutoff valve had been accessible next to the latrine. The contractor hadn't replaced it. Now maintenance men scrambled to find a main valve under the building. In the meantime, the only option was to cut off water to the whole school and haul away the overflow in buckets.
Luckily, as Pruett noted placidly, the two portable toilets were still sitting at the airport and could be retrieved if Arlicaq School needed them.
"And it looks like we might."
Assistant features editor Mike Dunham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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