Faced with a foreign culture, harsh winters, and in some cases a lack of basic necessities, many Lower 48 teachers who accept jobs in rural Alaska don't make it more than a year.
That's why the state needs to attract Native students to careers in education, says Rhonda Hickok, manager of the federally funded Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools program at the University of Alaska Southeast. Hickok, 37, a former Juneau-Douglas High School history teacher, has headed the PITAS program since July of 2001.
Hickok, who grew up in Valdez and Glennallen, decided in high school to become a teacher. After moving to Juneau in the mid-'80s, she said she came to realize the value of Native programs in education.
"There is much improvement needed in Native education and I want to be a part of that," Hickok said.
PITAS is a federally funded program that prepares Natives in Southeast and the Lower Kuskokwim School District to become teachers.
The program aims to curb the high turnover of teachers in rural areas, Hickok said, noting that in some villages the entire faculty changes every year.
"You really have to want to be there, and those who really want to be there are those who live there, those who are accustomed to the land and feel very much at home there," she said.
She also noted the cultural disconnection between Native students and teachers from outside of Alaska.
"If you are taught and you are schooled in mainstream society, you are only getting part of the picture," she said, noting that many rural Native students operate at a different pace and have different learning styles than urban students.
Prior to heading the program, Hickok worked with PITAS as a mentor to students at Juneau-Douglas High School.
Participating teachers and aides are given a small stipend for spending time outside the classroom with Native students, preparing them with the skills needed to get a college degree in education.
Sixteen teachers in the Lower Kuskokwim and Southeast are mentoring. Three are in Juneau - two at JDHS and one at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.
PITAS is in its third year of operation under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Drawing from her experiences as a mentor and borrowing ideas from similar programs around the country, Hickok formulated a curriculum for PITAS students.
Students participate in online courses, conduct interviews with faculty, and participate in a summer institute at UAS.
Those who continue with PITAS through college are awarded scholarships that include tuition, books and lodging. Hickok said 36 UAS students have PITAS scholarships.
Paula Dybdahl, a JDHS history teacher and PITAS mentor, directed the UAS Summer Institute last year under Hickok's supervision. Students live on campus for two weeks and attend classes.
"It's almost like an immersion into university life," Dybdahl said.
Dybdahl said Hickok is involved with students on an individual level.
"She reviews students' assignments at the high school level and tries to maintain contact with students at all levels," Dybdahl said, calling Hickok a role model for the students and herself. "I think the kids at both levels are so lucky to have her as their cheerleader because she gives 110 percent."
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.