Fighting back tears while waving goodbye to their parents on a Bush runway is no longer an annual ritual for rural Native children, once forced to leave their families and hometowns for a formal education.
But some 30 years after settlement of the Molly Hootch case allowed Native students to attend class in their own villages, boarding schools are up for debate once again. Gov. Frank Murkowski suggested this month that resurrecting such schools may be the best way to help rural students make it in college and the workplace.
Boarding schools left so many scars on Native students and their families, it's no wonder many have no interest in bringing back even hints of that era. But village schools are plagued with such high dropout rates, constant teacher turnover, low test scores and lack of programs, that state-run boarding schools, such as the successful Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, should be considered as one option for students. Right now the demand for these schools exceeds the openings and students remain on waiting lists.
Proponents of boarding schools are not talking about dumping rural schools altogether and going back to the days when children were forced from their families to sometimes abusive institutions. They are simply discussing adding choices for rural Alaska students, just as many American children have the option to attend religious or private schools.
Another worry is that boarding schools will further remove Native children from their culture. But modern boarding schools should not be warehouses of assimilation as they were in the past. They should provide a rigorous education that will allow students to compete in universities and the job market. They also should include language and culture programs that tie Native students to their heritage.
Boarding schools do pose other problems: They separate families, are more expensive to run than rural schools and could siphon off the brightest, most motivated children from village classrooms. The last possibility could further erode rural education and make it even harder to retain teachers in villages.
The state needs to consider not only boarding schools, but other ways to bolster its ailing rural education system. Curbing teacher turnover is critical. The state is in its second year of a mentoring program in which experienced teachers work with several hundred new teachers so they feel less overwhelmed by the enormous demands of the classroom. While it's too early to tell what effect this will have on Alaska's turnover rate, the program has been tremendously successful in other states.
The state also needs to put more energy into recruiting Native teachers for rural schools, where culture shock and racial tension can cut short an outside teacher's tenure. A federally funded program at the University of Alaska Southeast, called Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools, or PITAS, works to bring more Native students into the education system. Raising the Native graduation rate is also critical to this end; the larger the pool of Native graduates the more who are likely to earn teaching degrees.
Boarding schools are not the sole remedy for Alaska's rural education woes. But they should be considered as one alternative, and even their critics should use this debate to focus attention on the bigger issue of how to raise the bar in Alaska's village schools.
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