TUNTUTULIAK - U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was not ready to grant Alaska exceptions to sweeping federal education reforms after visiting a rural village Monday, but he did have an assessment of its educators.
"Heroic teachers," Paige said, after a little more than two hours at Lewis Angapak Memorial School in Tuntutuliak. "What it does is move you to do all you can to be helpful."
Paige arrived Saturday at the invitation of Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski to learn more about Alaska's challenges in meeting the No Child Left Behind act, which outlines strict provisions for student achievement and qualifications for teachers and aides.
State education officials say it will be nearly impossible to meet the requirement that all high school teacher be "highly qualified" - holding a degree or a major in every core subject they teach - at schools with three or fewer teachers.
They want a delay in the requirement that teacher aides hold an associate's degree or sufficient college credits, especially in villages that have little access to higher education.
They also want modification to the requirement that failing schools pay to offer students a choice to attend elsewhere.
In a visit of about two hours to Tuntutuliak, Paige got an eyeful of the challenges of educating children in remote villages.
Wearing a borrowed parka and rubber boots, Paige reached Tuntutuliak on board a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter, in part because a fixed-wing aircraft became stuck in mud on a taxiway the day before.
He landed on the tundra and was required to walk to reach the community's boardwalk system, planks wide enough for two all-terrain vehicles to pass. The boardwalk is used in lieu of roads on the tundra in the community of 377, 40 miles southwest of Bethel.
"I was not prepared for the conditions," Paige said. "The boardwalk, the soggy soil, the swamplike conditions. I've got to tell you, it makes you even more appreciative of the work our teachers and principals do out there under those conditions."
Inside the school, Paige met teacher Amanda Moss, a first-year high school teacher from Madison, Wis.
"I love the kids," she told Paige, but she will leave at the end of the school year. Why? "Mainly the isolation," she said.
She will not be alone. The teacher turnover rate in the Lower Kuskokwim School District approached 30 percent last year.
Staff members that stay from year to year are uncredentialed teacher aides, including three "associate teachers" who instruct children in grades 1-3. They teach in Yup'ik Eskimo, the villagers' native tongue.
Though highly trained by the district, the aides are not "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind.
Students cross over to lessons in English in fourth grade and principal Pam Varner said it probably takes them until fifth grade to be fluent.
Under No Child Left Behind, classes will be tested in English.
Paige said it was too soon to be discussing exceptions to the law for Alaska, or how to make it work in the state's rural areas.
"We have not come up with an answer to that problem," he said.
Seeing the situation firsthand was helpful, he said.
"You couldn't have described this situation to us adequately to get the understanding we've gained as a result of seeing it with our own eyes," he said.
Paige said he was confident details on how the law would be applied could be worked out.
"The No Child Left Behind Act is a positive law," Paige said. "It's intent is to provide a helping hand to those who need some assistance in order to achieve high standards."
"It is up to us to create the mechanisms to bring that about, that fit these two entities - the law here and the federal law - together."