Push for Native studies

Summit seeks Native langauges and curriculum in schools

Posted: Monday, March 06, 2000

Educators concerned with the disproportionate number of Native students who test poorly or drop out of school are placing their hopes in culturally relevant curriculum, Native language programs and charter schools.

At the same time, some educators said all teachers must also teach academic English and have high expectations of Native students.

``We've been attempting to change schools from within,'' said Mike Travis, who works with low-performing schools for a federally funded program of the South East Regional Resource Center. ``I don't think we've been able to make a whole lot of progress.''

Travis, speaking at the Alaska Native Education Summit last week at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall in Juneau, called for more Native-oriented charter schools.

Parents will get involved in the schools when there's a partnership with the community and when schools have a curriculum balanced between Native and Western ways of knowledge, he said.

Many speakers said there's a difference between the Western values of competition and individualism and Native values of community and unity with nature.

Native students will do well in school, in both types of knowledge, when their traditional ways are used in the curriculum and built upon, the educators said.

Language is one of the chief ways these world views are carried on, they said.

``We teach our kids how to be people, instead of just teaching the subject,'' said Agatha Shields, who is developing curriculum at Apayrun Yup'ik Immersion Charter School in Bethel.

The charter school has about 150 students and a staff of 20, including nine Yup'ik-speaking teachers. It grew out a languageimmersion program of several years standing.

``Being a school within a school (previously) was harsh,'' said kindergarten teacher Loddie Jones. ``We knew that our (Native) students were generating money, but we were getting just a small part of that money. We wanted autonomy.''

The Yup'ik charter school teaches all academic subjects, following state standards, in kindergarten through grade four. But it also incorporates Native values of respect for their elders and the natural world. Instruction is in English and Yup'ik. Students who know both languages score better in tests, Jones said.

There's some interest in forming Native-oriented charter schools in Kotzebue and Fairbanks, said Ray Barnhardt, co-director of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, which promotes indigenous knowledge in the schools.

A Native-oriented charter school was recently turned down in Juneau, along with a Montessori school. School board members said it was partly because charter school students get less state funding than others.

Besides charter schools, there are efforts throughout the state to create ``place-based'' curriculum.

Retired university professor Dennis Demmert said when he was in grade school the teacher taught that Indians were the bad guys and the Indian contribution to culture was vegetables such as corn and squash.

Things are changing, but slowly. Native educators are developing culturally relevant curriculum for the regular schools. It takes time and money to produce materials that suit the local culture, but it also gets the community involved, educators said.

Sandy Wassilie of Seward is helping to develop a Native-oriented curriculum for some small Native villages and larger cities in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula.

``There is a local history the kids aren't learning,'' Wassilie said. ``If people are going to have a sense of place, they really have to know who has been there. We talk about the Russians being there. But do we talk about the Alutiiq being there?''

The federally funded project by Chugachmiut, a regional Native cultural corporation, has produced Alu'utiq translations of Alaska children's books and an Alu'utiq picture dictionary with flash cards.

The curriculum in English is intended to be part of regular classes for all children. It incorporates Native uses of trees in science courses, for example, and a study of geography and natural resources as a background to understanding the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

But a study last year of seven efforts to incorporate indigenous knowledge into rural schools suggests it's hard to sustain reforms. It found a high turnover of teachers and principals, and a shortage of local Native teachers, which made it hard to create trust with local communities, Barnhardt said.

One problem is that while the state suffers a teachers shortage, it has moved to a five-year teaching degree that leaves out a lot of rural people, Barnhardt said.

Students used to be able to get a bachelor's degree in teaching in rural areas. But the new degree isn't available there, he said.

Only 6 percent of Alaska's teachers are Native, said Bernice Tetpon, bilingual program manager for the state Department of Education. ``That is too small. Parents need teachers they are comfortable with and who they can talk to in the Native language,'' she said.

Teachers who come to Alaska from other states aren't prepared to teach here, Demmert said.

A Web site is one way to reach more people than teacher workshops, said Paul Ongtooguk of the University of Alaska Anchorage. The site, called Native Studies Curriculum and Teacher Development, was prepared at the university with federal funds. It has a wealth of documents about the history of Alaska and Native education, curriculum and languages.

To reach the Native studies Web site, and the rural systemic initiative's Web site, go to www.alaskool.org, and www.ankn.uaf.edu.

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