My Turn: It's not too late to change the system

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

As our schools end another year I would like to send a heartfelt thanks to the many faculty, administrators, staff, parents and students who have worked tirelessly to provide or take part in a first-class education. Thank-you. Or, in the first language of this place, "Gunalcheesh."

While I really do appreciate the progress made toward better schools and smarter students, I would also ask policymakers and people in positions of influence over our educational systems to take time this summer to reconsider the process and product. If the kind of education we are providing is adequate, why does the urban-rural divide seem to be growing? And why do many of our political and financial leaders seem to misunderstand the plight of Alaska Natives, in general, and the importance of subsistence, in particular?

Even among Alaska Natives I wonder at the educational system that produces leaders who for 30 years have clear-cut forests, expanded commercial fisheries, opened mines and produced oil, not looking several generations ahead to consider if their decisions are sound, but instead focusing annually on earnings and dividends. I wonder, for example, if any of the Native leaders who are advocates of opening ANWR have asked their most knowledgeable elders about the possible impacts on Caribou herds and their people's way of life. I wonder if any of the leaders of Cook Inlet Region Inc. considered the social and long-term impacts of the huge dividends they paid after hitting their so-called "home run" with wireless licenses?

At what point did we forget that traditional education - knowledge about who we are and how we live in a particular place - is at least as important if not more important to our survival than a mainstream, standards-based education? I know when I forgot; it was when I went away to earn a graduate degree and stopped hearing the voice of my grandmother and other elders. It was when I decided that a credential bestowed by a prestigious institution, more than the truth about the world in which I would live, was key to my success. It was when I decided that what I do is more important than where I live and who I am.

It has been hard for many of this generation to redefine ourselves as Alaskans when we are so unaware of even the basic facts about who we are in relation to the place we live. In this respect, our education has failed us and we didn't even know it. That is the bad news. The good news is that it is not too late to change the system for our children and grandchildren.

I have a few suggestions. To start, let's elect legislators who will substantially increase funding for schools, and have the guts to mandate that districts statewide offer classes in Alaska Studies. As part of this proposal, let's allocate funds to pay Alaska teachers more than those of any other state, and then train them to make their methods and curriculum materials place-based and culturally relevant. If such training is an option, like an endorsement in reading, then let's pay teachers who complete such training more than those who do not. And at the college level, support for programs and pedagogies infused with a local and regional worldview is a good first step. I believe it is possible to not only keep our kids in Alaska after high school, but also to provide them with an education that helps them make sense of the complex issues that we all face now and in the years to come.

The future of Alaska is its children. I would humbly suggest that to ensure a bright future, we have to substantially change our schools. Not only does this kind of change need to begin now, but it has to begin with you.

Ted Wright, Ph.D., of Juneau is interim president of Southeast Alaska Tribal College.

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