Native study hall gives a new meaning to value of education

Posted: Sunday, December 04, 2005

A t first glance it strikes one as an odd and perhaps misguided way of engaging students: Bribe them into studying.

That is exactly what Tlingit & Haida Central Council began doing two weeks ago, with an after-school study hall that pays Native students $7.50 an hour to crack the books. From 2:30 to 4 p.m., Juneau-Douglas High School students can earn money for doing - let's just say it - what they should be doing anyway. "What?" you say. "Gold stars stuck on well-crafted assignments aren't enough anymore?"

Well, it turns out they aren't. Juneau's and Alaska's dropout rates are atrocious, and a major part of the reason is widespread failure to keep Native students enthused and involved. Whatever the cause - curriculum, social isolation or home life - too many of Juneau's future workers are selling their futures short. Native leaders and educators have invested much time and thought in potential solutions, but change is slow and unsteady. Why not try something radical when so much is at stake both for the community and the individual?

It is clear that there is a disconnect between many of Juneau's students and the traditional sense of education's value. Generations of Americans have viewed school not as a job but as a ticket to one; a self-improvement program that pays huge economic dividends over time. But Alaskans, and particularly their Native leaders, are dealing with what threatens to become a lost generation. Something must be done now to help potential dropout students connect with their educations and value them. Few things say value like a dollar.

So far, at least in terms of attracting students' attention, it seems to be working. The list of attendees grew from nine on the first day to two dozen in the second week.

Ultimately, though, the students must understand that the real value isn't what they take home in their pockets, but in their minds and hearts: problem-solving skills, work ethics, knowledge, confidence and courage. The measures of these will be the same as always - marks on a report card and diplomas. If study hall instructors can connect with students well enough to help them progress and meet their in-school challenges, the real rewards should become clear to everyone.

Getting kids involved is merely the crucial first step. If better grades don't follow, and soon, the council would be wise to reconsider its investment because quick cash should never be the primary motive for studying. The initial program expires at this month's end, and it should be evaluated along with the students at that point. But for now the organizers are to be congratulated for taking a chance and putting their money where their mouths are.

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