Conference explores reasons for high Native dropout rate

With graduation rate dropping below half, Natives asking why

Posted: Wednesday, October 25, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Laretta Adams started her junior year in Kivalina this fall with about 15 high school classmates.

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Now, just a couple of months into the school year, eight teenagers regularly show up, she said. She asks the others why they don't come. Boring, they say. They don't get why graduating matters.

Laretta admits school gets old sometimes. Sitting and reading in silence? Not fun.

But she wants a diploma.

"Plus my mom is scary," she said.

That final comment sent laughter rippling through a small, crowded room in the basement of the Egan Center on Monday. It was a rare light moment during a serious session wading through one of the biggest issues facing Alaska Native children today: Dropping out.

Consider the 2004-05 statistics: Of Native students who started high school four years earlier, 43 percent graduated, according to the state. In some villages, it's far lower. About 37 percent of all Alaska dropouts are Native teenagers.

At Monday's gathering - part of First Alaskans' Elders and Youth Conference at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention - this final statistic brought one elder to his feet.

Silver-haired Henry Markarka rose abruptly and asked the question on everyone's mind:

"Why are there so many dropouts?"

Those gathered in the room had many answers, and even some ideas on how to battle this crushing trend.

Joy Shockley graduated from Dartmouth University in June. But there was a time when that seemed like an impossible outcome in her life, she said.

Shockley grew up in several Interior communities. She loved school - until seventh grade in Fairbanks. Then things changed, Shockley told the group. Kids formed race-based cliques. She felt like teachers didn't expect much of her.

"They stopped looking at me like I was the future, and they started looking at me like, 'Great, another Native girl,'" Shockley said.

If they didn't want her, she didn't want them. Shockley started smoking, drinking and skipping classes. At age 13, she got in a fight and got kicked out. Her brothers had both dropped out so she didn't let it get to her, she said.

Her family returned to Stevens Village, hoping the change would help Shockley. It didn't. School in Galena didn't take either. The rebellious teen was kicked out after the Thanksgiving break.

Finally, Shockley took a hard look at the future and decided she wanted a diploma. She wanted to be proud of herself, she said. So she searched online and found a school in Arizona that seemed good, got a scholarship, and completed her junior and senior years there before being accepted at Dartmouth.

"Even if there's a time no one is expecting anything of you, set your own standards," Shockley advised the other kids. "You really do have the power to change things."

The crowd at Monday's meeting included middle and high school students, teachers, school board members, and parents.

Some said today's teaching force is often to blame when Native students leave school - that the teachers are green to village cultures and still have too-low expectations for Native children.

Dee Olin from Ruby said many educators set a bad example by abruptly leaving village schools. That doesn't send students the message that they should stay in school, Olin said.

Others said students and their families need to take a more active role in education.

"In their home life, students don't get enough self-esteem, and they don't feel good about themselves," said Barbara Radcliffe, an elder from the Bristol Bay Native Corp. "So they start drinking, and they drop out."

Aaron Peters, an Athabascan from Ruby, said he easily could have quit school. He came from a broken home and grew up on welfare. His older sister dropped out of school. Another committed suicide.

But Peters held on and graduated. He served in the Air Force. And now he's at University of Alaska Anchorage with a double major in nursing and psychology.

"If I can do it," Peters said, "any of you guys can."

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