Group wants plan for Native students

Educators, Native organizations work to improve graduation rates

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004

Local educators and Native organizations are working on a plan to improve Native achievement in the Juneau schools.

The group met for the first time Tuesday at ANB Hall. The effort is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, the Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 70 and the Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

The purpose is to come up with a "specific and aggressive" plan of action to keep more Native students in high school and increase academic achievement for Native students at all grade levels, organizers said.

The high school graduation rate for Native students in Juneau is 37 percent, according to the Juneau School District. The graduation rate as a whole is 65 percent.

The district's annual reports on test scores in English and math show that some Native students do well, but there's a gap in achievement on average between Natives and non-Natives. A larger percentage of Natives do poorly on such tests.

Former Juneau teacher Ted Wright, an assistant professor of education at Antioch University Seattle, told the roughly 45 attendees to forget about the numbers and comparisons. Instead, he asked the group to develop a vision of aspirations for Native students that goes beyond what's in "the simple indicators."

Schools do admirable work under a lot of pressure from the state and federal governments, and pass the pressure on to teachers and students, who just leave, Wright said.

"It's about time that we take responsibility for our own education," he said, whether that's establishing Native schools or setting goals and pushing the public schools, or both.

"Let's organize ourselves with our partners so that we transform education and educational institutions for the benefit of our people. It's been done for indigenous peoples. It doesn't have to be done from scratch - just adapted for this area," Wright said.

Other meetings, open to new participants, are scheduled for July 13 and Aug. 17. The intention is to develop a plan of action at the July meeting and present it to school officials and the public in August, said Andy Hope, one of the organizers.

The highest priority is to build a strong language base among young Native children in a cultural context that supports the Tlingit community, said William Demmert Jr., a professor of education at Western Washington University in Bellingham. The next priority is to build partnerships between universities and schools to increase teacher competence, he said.

Participants Tuesday spoke of the need to address racism in schools; create partnerships between schools, parents and the broader community; improve teaching styles and teachers' knowledge of Native culture; reduce the dropout rate; and hold all students to high standards.

Teachers need to know more about Native culture and how to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of students who aren't in the middle class, said Harborview Elementary Principal Kathi Yanamura.

Leah Hiott, a candidate for a master's degree in teaching from the University of Alaska Southeast, said teachers should be models for learning and show an active interest in students' cultures, "really getting involved in the students' lives as individuals."

The master's degree students intern in schools.

Master's degree candidate Kristy Ford said students need to develop a sense of who they are through their culture from an early age. A Juneau-Douglas High School student told her that it's almost as if Native students are embarrassed at who they are. She noticed that Native students who were quiet in class were outgoing during the recent Celebration event, Ford said.

Teachers should be more approachable for students and build bonds with them, master's degree candidate Robert Casperson said.

"A lot of students don't feel safe, so they will sit quietly in the back of a classroom," he said.

Significant learning can't take place without significant relationships, Yanamura said. "We have got to build bridges."

Contact box

For more information on plans to improve Native education, contact Ted Wright at or call Andy Hope at 790-4406.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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