Sealaska Heritage Institute has received an $850,000 federal grant to develop a Native-oriented high school curriculum in math, science and history.
The institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1981 to administer cultural and educational programs for Sealaska Corp., the Southeast regional Native corporation.
Part of the grant's objective is to help Alaska Natives pass the state's high school exit exam, required for a diploma, and be prepared for college, said SHI President Rosita Worl.
"We're very much tuned to those academic needs," she said. "... Native kids do better when they're studying their own language and culture."
SHI intends to test the curriculum in Juneau schools first and then offer training for teachers here and in Sitka and Ketchikan. Eventually, the curriculum could be used elsewhere, Worl said. The grant will be spent over three years.
The institute will hire curriculum specialists who will work with locals knowledgeable about Native culture, such as SHI's Council of Traditional Scholars, Worl said. Some materials already exist, such as a cultural atlas on CD-ROM in which place names are voiced in Tlingit and clan crests are pictured.
The project would enhance and continue the Juneau School District's own efforts to provide a culturally relevant curriculum, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.
The district now offers Tlingit-oriented classrooms at Harborview Elementary, and holds a grant to expand the effort to other schools. It also has a grant to extend the Native- and science-oriented Camp W.A.T.E.R. from a summer program to the school year in the middle schools. And the district offers the Early Scholars Program at Juneau-Douglas High School to prepare Natives for college.
The advantage of grant programs is that they create education materials that can be reproduced and used broadly, Cowan said.
"We have a lot of teachers who are doing it themselves, but without more resources it won't be shared," she said.
The grant comes at a time when Native students and parents in Juneau have raised concerns about the need for a more culturally relevant curriculum, said Annie Calkins, a former school district official who has evaluated Camp W.A.T.E.R. and the Early Scholars Program.
Several racial incidents at JDHS last school year unleashed pent-up concerns about racism in the schools.
"A lot of kids at the high school don't feel like they're respected, both personally and interpersonally," Calkins said.
Students need windows to the world, but they also need mirrors - more recognition that their culture has a place in the world, she said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.