CHAPTER SEVEN
DEVELOPMENT OF THE CURRENT RURAL SECONDARY SCHOOL SYSTEM

The present secondary school system for village adolescents is accomplishing results precisely opposite to those desired. Rather than promoting student development, the secondary schools are helping to create personality disintegration in many students. How did such a system develop in the first place and how can such errors be avoided in future policymaking?

The history of secondary school policy in Alaska illustrates pervasive problems in cross-cultural education. Decisions have been made primarily on the basis of economic and political, not educational, considerations. Research studies on educational problems generally reach the wrong conclusions because they are ordered from outside consulting firms that have little knowledge of Alaskan problems. In addition, a proliferation of independent, competing agencies within the system makes it impossible to develop coherent educational plans or to hold any source responsible for the failure of the system.

Availability as the Basis of the Secondary School Program

The first types of secondary school programs were established for village students on the basis of mere availability. From 1947 until 1965 the only public high school available to Native students from small villages was Mt. Edgecumbe, a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Despite great overcrowding, Mt. Edgecumbe was not large enough to handle all the rural students who wished to attend high school. Most students remained at home in the village.

The large numbers of rural students being denied a secondary school education led to the development of emergency measures. The Bureau of Indian Affairs opened two boarding schools in other states to Alaska Native studentsóChemawa in Oregon and Chilocco in Oklahoma. In 1966, the Boarding Home Program was established. Originally viewed as an emergency measure to provide village students with a way to receive some high school education, enrollment in the Boarding Home Program mushroomed. The lower cost of this program and the lower rates of conspicuous social disturbance (compared to boarding school programs) led state policymakers to view it as a permanent part of the secondary education system.

Large Regional High School Concept

The only systematic attempt to develop secondary school policies based on rural students' educational needs was a research study that the state of Alaska ordered from the Training Corporation of America (TCA report). This organization, located in Falls Church, Virginia, had little knowledge of Alaska problems. Its findings and recommendations were based on research and policy issues relevant to black students in the urban ghetto. When applied to Native students in rural Alaska, these findings led to the policy recommendations which were exactly the opposite of those required. The TCA report1 argued that:

Based on these assumptions, the TCA report recommended:

To understand the basis of these conclusions, one must be familiar with the particular educational research and policy issues of black education in the late 1960s. In 1966, when the TCA report was written, the most discussed finding in education was that the achievement of black students was higher in integrated schools.2 The educational policies in vogue were large "magnet schools" or "educational parks." These large schools would be extravaganzas of educational technology and would thus persuade white parents to integrate their children with blacks in a comprehensive high school.

The achievement of Indian and Eskimo children in integrated schools, however, has been found to be no different than their achievement in all Native schools.3 In addition, the impersonality of large schools in the urban ghettos is widely considered to be a central cause of the high degree of student alienation, absenteeism, and social disruption. The large magnet school concept has now been replaced in educational thinking by the concept of small mini-schools. Such "street-academies" which stress small groups, informal relationships with teachers, and the use of the community as a learning resource have appeared successful in creating positive attitudes toward education among formerly alienated students. Some of these schools have encouraged a number of dropouts to attend college.4 However, Alaska secondary school policy in the 1960s was based on the concept of large high schools in regional towns. This policy was the result of three factors:

Beltz Boarding School opened outside of Nome in 1966. The Kodiak Aleutian Regional School opened in 1967, and the Bethel Regional School opened in 1973.

At the same time, most of the old high school programs were continued, and new ones were added. The Boarding Home Program continued to enroll large numbers of rural students. Out-of-state BIA boarding schools were phased out, but Mt. Edgecumbe remained open. In addition, a new boarding school program opened at Wildwood in 1973. This program fit into no existing secondary school plan but was established in answer to economic pressures from certain interest groups.

Administrative Chaos

This manner of determining secondary school policy resulted not only in bad policy but also in administrative chaos that prevented the correction of policy. No single source was responsible for what happened to rural children. In 1972-73, for example, 21 separate agencies were involved in some aspect of rural secondary education. One state division (Division of Regional Schools and Boarding Home Program) was responsible for the residential program, and another state division (Division of State-Operated Schools) was responsible for the academic program. Also involved in academic programs for village students were 17 independent school districts. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Kenai Native Association were also responsible for rural secondary education programs.

Such administrative divisions made it impossible to establish coherent policies. Rural students easily transferred each year from program to program in a nomadic pattern that has been found to contribute to psychological disorder.5 Despite the massive rate of mental health problems among village students in these programs, the state in 1973 only budgeted $5,000 for mental health services. Further, hostilities between dorm staff and school staff prevented the development of any unified educational goals.

Present Policy Directions

The severe social problems of students in high schools away from home together with parents' desires to keep their children at home led to abandonment of the regional high school concept. Plans for large new dormitories in Fairbanks and Sitka were dropped, although a dormitory in process, Bethel, was still built as planned. State-Operated Schools established ninth and tenth grade programs in some of the villages, and a few new high schools are being built in the larger villages.

The future direction of rural secondary education is uncertain. In 1972, Alaska Legal Services Corporation brought a law suit, a class action on behalf of village students from villages without high schools, to compel the state to establish village high school programs. However, village high schools are not supported by many village students who feel that they will be denied opportunities enjoyed by their older brothers and sisters. Also, some Native leaders and village teachers are highly skeptical of the educational potential of the village school concept at a time when highly trained Natives are badly needed. As one village teacher wrote to us:

Everyone here has read the proposal (for a village 9th and 10th grade program) and is struck by the claim that in the first year it will only cost 50 percent of a boarding program for the same children and that in the future, costs will drop because of no more need for major investment. We can't help wondering what the state has in mind, saving money or developing a more effective educational program for the village kids.

The state Board of Education has continued to feel that it is not in the best interest of village children to place a 4-year high school in every village. Creation of small area high schools of 60 to 120 students is one possibility being considered. Another possibility under consideration is establishing ninth and tenth grade programs in the villages and sending students away to regional high schools for their junior and senior years. Some educators, however, still question whether boarding schools or the boarding home program should remain open at all.

In 1973-74, control over some boarding home and dormitory programs was transferred to local Native organizations. It is much too early at this time to determine what effects such Native organizations will have in improving secondary school programs. Problems in these schools, for example, occur in cycles, with some years being much worse than others due to particular staff members, students, or policies. Early reports from Bethel suggest that new policies have had substantial positive effects in, for example, reducing social problems in the dormitory. However, other Native organizations, such as those in charge of boarding home programs, have not been able to markedly reduce many of village students' problems because these problems are caused by large urban high schools over which the organizations have little control. While this transfer of control to Native groups may in some cases improve the situation, there is a real danger that this transfer could also silence needed criticism against major, more subtle problems that still remain in these secondary school programs. Reducing problems in dormitories, for example, is important, but village students may still not receive the education they need to succeed as adults because of detachment from their families and lack of sufficient personal guidance. Pointing out these problems in secondary programs (which did not originate under new policies of the Native organizations but under those established by the state of Alaska and the Bureau of Indian Affairs), could nonetheless be misinterpreted as attacks on Native organizations.

Summary

Secondary school policy in Alaska has been based largely on mere availability of physical plants, irrelevant research, and political and economic interests. This situation has not only led to wrong policies, it has also led to organizational chaos which prevents correction of these policies. With 21 separate agencies responsible for rural secondary education, no one is effectively responsible.

Controversy rages over the direction of future secondary school policy, and many questions remain to be answered:

Or does some combination of the above alternatives represent the educational policy that will provide the greatest educational benefits to village children?



Endnotes

1 Secondary Education for Rural Alaska, Interim Report. Training Corporation of America, Falls Church, Virginia, 1966; State of Alaska Regional Secondary School System Implementation Plan, Final Report. Training Corporation of America, Falls Church, Virginia, 1967.

2 J.S. Coleman, Equality of Educational Opportunity, Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.

3 Bass, op. cit.

4 A good review of the various types of mini-schools may be found in Nelson, William C., "The Storefront School: A Vehicle for Change"; R. Rist, Restructuring American Education, New Brunswick, Transaction Books, 1972; Divoky, Diane, "New York's Mini-Schools," Saturday Review, December 19, 1971. Schools of this type have been created both in Anchorage and in Fairbanks, and informal reports suggest they have had positive results.

5 T.P. Krush, J.W. Bjork, M.S.W., P.S. Sindell, and J. Nelle, "Some Thoughts on the Formation of Personality Disorder: Study of an Indian Boarding School Population," American Journal of Psychiatry, 122:8 (February 1966) 868-875.

 

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