After a dismal assessment, Lower Yukon school district makes changes

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Every school district in the United States had its shortcomings aired this summer under the new No Child Left Behind Act, but few fared as poorly as the Lower Yukon's in Western Alaska. All 11 of its schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress."

That dismal assessment hasn't dampened enthusiasm among the district's 200 teachers, principals and administrators. At meetings last week at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the mood was decidedly upbeat. Rather than break teachers' spirits, No Child Left Behind has opened the door for the district to break away from its past and take risks aimed at improving student achievement.

"The system is changing," said Superintendent Bob Robertson, starting with the annual in-service meeting itself. It was the first time in more than 20 years the entire district staff has met under one roof.

More important, Robertson said, the district has decided to weave Yup'ik life into the classroom through new courses and nontraditional teaching methods. Educators hope that by making education more relevant to village residents, the schools can snap the cycle of educational failure that has gripped the region for generations.

"If we continue the way we've been doing, we're not getting (students) to better themselves," Robertson said. "If we enable them to continue to fail, we're not going to change the situation at all."

Rather than feel threatened or overwhelmed by the changes, school administrators and teachers said they are excited by the prospects.

"Finally," said Kotlik principal Mitzi Garrison. "All my life I've wanted to be innovative, but the system kept you from doing it."

Adequate yearly progress is the measure of a school under the landmark federal education law that passed last year. For the Lower Yukon School District, it means too few of its 2,100 students read, write and do math as well as other kids their age.

Schools that show no progress for more than a year face increasingly stiff consequences. Four years on the list puts a school into "corrective action," which can include extending the school day or school year, revising curriculum and even replacing school staff.

While two schools are in line for corrective action - Hooper Bay and Pilot Station - the district has undergone major restructuring in hopes of keeping more schools from joining them. One element of the reform is a new style of teaching that advocates believe will raise test scores and improve student achievement.

Known as the Quality Schools Model, it started nearly a decade ago in the Chugach School District, when Alaska's current commissioner of education, Roger Sampson, was superintendent.

In a traditional classroom, students are expected to learn a body of information and move as a group to subsequent lessons. The new model gives a student as much time as needed to learn a skill, such as counting out loud or reading the alphabet. Once a group of skills are mastered, the student moves on to the next level.

"The underlying belief is that students learn at different rates and different times, and that's OK," said Jane Esp, a former Chugach employee who is now a consultant.

The model focuses heavily on reading, and all teachers will incorporate reading instruction into their own curriculum, whether it's science or subsistence, Esp said.

Yup'ik study is an addition to the curriculum at most schools, Esp said. This year, the district will develop specific skills in Yup'ik culture that it expects students to master by the time they graduate, the same as for math or reading.

Subsistence and survival skills are already taught at some schools. In an effort to make school more relevant to Yup'ik students, the districtwide reforms call for all its schools to develop or expand their programs.

For several years, the Russian Mission school has taken students to camps lasting from a few days to a few weeks. They gillnet salmon, pick berries and hunt moose in the fall. In the winter, they learn to trap beavers and set nets under the river ice for whitefish. When they return to class they read, write and speak about their experiences, not to mention download the information onto their personal Web sites.

"The fundamental issue for kids here is 'Can you keep alive and feed yourself?" Principal Mike Hull said. "Our goal is that by eighth grade we want them proficient in survival and subsistence."

For several generations in rural Alaska, school and subsistence activities have interfered with each other, Hull said. It makes sense to combine the two.

Parents in Russian Mission, a village of 300 more than 100 miles up the Yukon River, have embraced the school's program, Hull said.

"They're excited to see their kids learn to do those things," he said.

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