Angoon students lose teacher, stage protest

Who's left behind? Experts question federal law's application in villages

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007

When students in Angoon got wind that their beloved English teacher would not be returning next fall because her contract wasn't getting renewed, they quit class and packed a school board meeting to protest.

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Hoisting signs that read "Politics Should Not Play a Part" and "Vance Give Her a Chance," the students joined parents during a Chatham District School Board meeting Tuesday to speak out for Melissa Cullum, who is known for her unique teaching style and willingness to push students.

"Maybe one or two of (the students) didn't end up crying at the possibility of her not coming back," said Lillian Woodbury, a teacher aide to Cullum and a 1997 graduate of Eli Katanook Memorial.

"We love Melissa," she said.

The flap at the tiny school on Admiralty Island, like its bigger counterparts around the nation, may be attributed in part to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The law requires schools to satisfy a number of academic goals every year, gauged largely through standardized testing. If a school fails to meet just one of those benchmarks, it is considered a failure and sanctioned.

District Superintendent Vance Cortez-Rucker said that this was the fifth year Eli Katanook Memorial has failed to meet the standards.

During the 2005-2006 school year, 55 percent of students who took the standardized tests in the district's four schools were shown to be proficient in language arts, according to state Department of Education records.

Only 43 percent were deemed proficient in math. The state averages are higher: 72 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

As a Title 1 school accepting federal funds, Eli Katanook has to show improvement or face punishment, which could mean a state takeover, said Bill Bjork, president of the National Education Association of Alaska.

School districts in such situations must develop action plans, which Cortez-Rucker said he is doing.

"Everyone has been involved. There are no surprises," he said. As part of that process, he and members of the board are required to evaluate teachers and determine if they are "high quality."

Cortez-Rucker would not discuss Cullum's case. Cullum did not return phone calls.

"Absolutely it is a personnel matter. It is unfortunate that some of the folks here don't understand that," he said.

The matter was unrelated to budget cuts, which have forced him let go three other teachers in the school district this past month, Cortez-Rucker said.

"In this case, no one is being fired, the contract is not being renewed," he said. A new teacher will be hired.

The federal act, put into effect in 2001, is aimed at putting "quality" teachers in classrooms. At least that is the theory.

"While the goal is laudable, the implementation of this in rural Alaska just cannot work," Bjork said. Certain provisions require that teachers have a college degree in each subject they teach, for example.

In a small school, teachers often are instructors in several classes and may thus be deemed unqualified.

Bjork said Sen. Lisa Murkowski has authored legislation that would make the law more workable in rural Alaska.

Meanwhile, Chatham School District will soon be looking for a new teacher - someone who can adapt to the new federal system, Cortez-Rucker said.

"When we get these new challenges from the state and federal government, that person needs to be able to work with administrative staff in regards to that change," he said.

The way many in the Admiralty Island village see it, however, teachers such as Cullum are rare and valuable, dedicated to helping students get their work done.

"She goes and knocks on kids' doors. She will do that and do that until they get it done," Woodbury said.

"How do you make up for that quality time?" she asked.

Besides Angoon, the district includes school in Tenakee Springs, Gustavus and Klukwan. It has a total of about 200 students.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at

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