Efforts to aid Native students succeeding

Forum notes need to still raise retention rates, reduce dropouts and increase test scores

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2006

It may be a long road to travel to reach its destination, but the University of Alaska Southeast Native Education Working Group is heading in the right direction, said Joe Nelson.

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"When you look at the statistics, the retention rates, the dropout rates and performance on tests, there is a long way to go still," said Nelson, the director of Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools (PITAAS) program at UAS. "But, the good thing here is that there is discussion among key entities that are committed to improving to making progress."

Several dozen people from multiple organizations came together Friday at UAS for the Chancellor's Forum on Alaska Native Higher Education. Vicki Orazem, vice provost for student success, said this is the fourth time the forum has been held since the working group developed out of the Diversity Committee.

"Without a formal presentation of everything the university is doing for Native student success, it's a bit invisible and kind of hard to see it," she said. "So this was a way of reporting out everything the university has been doing."

Orazem said this year the university invited members of the Juneau School District and different Native organizations to work on finding solutions to narrow the educational achievement gap between Native and non-Native students.

"(Natives) are the largest minority group on campus, and its important to make sure that all students are successful," she said. "That was one large group that wasn't enjoying the same success that other ones were, so it's important to really be intentional about what are we doing to promote success for that particular group."

The three previous forums were spent identifying conditions for success, Orazem said. She said Friday's forum was spent looking to find ways to make the strategies work. The daylong event ended with a brainstorming session on the two dozen subcategories of the group's three identified conditions of success - retention, cultural responsiveness, and recruitment and preparation.

Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, education director for Sealaska Heritage Institute, said the working group is beginning to ask the right questions to help find solutions to help Native students succeed.

"It's important that we as educators develop a relationship so that we can provide good services to all students and come to a shared understanding of what success is," she said. "The gathering was important because they are actually looking for strategies and there are opportunities to create meaningful relationships."

Cadiente-Nelson said the forum allowed all the entities working on Native-student success to get on the same page to see how to approach the future.

"Sometimes we're in our own little pods asking the same questions and not realizing that there are others asking the same questions," she said.

The forum also gave the university a chance to highlight some of its efforts to recruit and retain Native students. A report presented by PITAAS said 17 mentor teachers are recruiting and mentoring 64 students in 12 communities. Also, 58 scholarships have been awarded for Native students for next fall, and a new writing mentor pilot program is set to come online this spring.

"We all have a common goal," Nelson said. "The question is, how do we get there? There are many people and more and more resources being directed there."

Nelson said the PITAAS program is beginning to show a good deal of success after 10 years of hard work.

"It just takes time to make progress," he said.

Cadiente-Nelson said there is a lot at stake for Native students to succeed.

"I think the constant message from Native entities ... is that our ancestors have sacrificed much for you to get your education," she said. "There's that expectation. We're finding our place as a Native community into this discussion and driving it by articulating that expectation that our kids can and will succeed."

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