Cultural program at JDHS guides Natives to further schooling

Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2002

Certainly, Tlingit ancestors paddling cedar canoes off the shores of Auke Village did not greet each other with the phrase, "What's up, dawg?"

But at least 30 Tlingit teenagers in Juneau can rattle off that phrase and two dozen more traditional phrases in Tlingit, thanks to the Tlingit language and culture class they attend weekly at the University of Alaska Southeast as part of the Early Scholars program.

The Early Scholars program for Alaska Native students has been at Juneau-Douglas High School for eight years. The program, started by school counselor Frank Coenraad, was modeled after similar programs for at-risk minority students in inner-city Los Angeles. About 30 students, grades nine to 12, are invited to participate, based on their grades and teacher recommendations.

The program, which focuses on cultural identity and achievement, was specifically developed in response to low rates of high school graduation and college attendance for Alaska Native youth.

Paula Dybdahl, the JDHS history teacher who oversees the Early Scholar class, said she has seen statistics that indicate only 20 percent of Alaska Native boys who enter high school graduate. Of that, she said, only 11 percent go on to college. Native young men in Alaska are as likely to go to college are they are to go to jail, she said.

About 19 percent, or 341 of the 1798 students at JDHS, are Alaska Native. Seventeen percent of Alaska's population is Alaska Native.

"We (educators) lose a lot of kids," Dybdahl said. "Someone, somewhere is not taking care of them. Here in our class we have 30 or 35 kids we've maintained a connection with."

The program is at capacity. Expanding it would take a greater commitment of Juneau School District resources, Dybdahl said.

Students remain in the Early Scholars class with Dybdahl for four years. In class they learn about history and government as well as Tlingit culture. They spend one class a week at the university, which helps them become accustomed to a college environment. They may also make college trips Outside.

"We call it in-your-face college; we just keep pushing the secondary education," Coenraad said.

The program has been successful, Coenraad said. The majority of Early Scholars seek higher education, from four-year college to vocational training school, he said. Often they are the first generation in their family to continue education after high school. The median grade-point-average of students in the program is nearly one point higher, at about a B average, than the median C average of Alaska Native students who are not in the program, Coenraad said.

On a recent Wednesday, 30 students gathered in the Early Scholars classroom in the basement of the Egan Library at UAS. To begin their class, UAS student Hans Chester asked them to play a game of Simon Says. The only catch was that all the directions were in Tlingit. Students stood and tried to follow his requests, placing their hands on their heads or pointing at the walls or ceiling. When a student missed a direction, he or she would sit down, drawing a chorus of giggles from classmates.

Aaron Katzeek, 16, said the environment in Early Scholars classes is different because there are only Alaska Native students in the room. The all-Native environment makes it easier for students to feel comfortable participating, he said, and when they participate they learn more.

"In most classes there are usually only two or three Alaska Natives, and we are usually quiet. In our (Early Scholars) class, everybody is loud and we have fun," he said.

Katzeek said he thought one of the most important things about Early Scholars was the cultural component.

"We need this class so we learn our backgrounds and the traditions of what our parents have done before," he said.

Student Chellsy Milton, 17, can introduce herself in Tlingit, saying both her English and Tlingit names, her clan, moiety, and house. She agreed that spending time with other Native students who are college-bound makes it easier to imagine herself at college.

"It keeps you on track," she said. "I know that I can always go to Ms. Dybdahl's class and get help. It is like a second home."

After the game of Simon Says, students worked with pronunciation. Chester stood at the front of the room while students asked him about different phrases.

"If someone is worried about a test, you might say "i gu.aa yax x'wn," or 'be brave,' " Chester said, slowly repeating the Tlingit phrase, emphasizing the way the sounds come from deep in the throat.

"What about, "what's up, d-a-w-g?" asked a student.

Chester laughed, said the phrase, and wrote it on a white board: "Wa sw ketl?"

Students around the room repeated it quietly to themselves.

Coenraad said the language and cultural piece of the program is essential, because it contributes to student self-esteem and helps them relate to significant adults - elements that have been proven to lead to student success.

"Heritage is a piece of the message that is about who these kids are," Coenraad said. "It elevates the kids to who they are in the community."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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