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Alaska Natives say education system fails them

Posted: Tuesday, December 10, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Educators, parents and former students who gathered at an Alaska Native education conference say the western education system has largely failed them. But some also pointed out that efforts to restructure schools' culture and course work have begun.

"If Native education worked for us, we would not be having this conference," said Byron Mallott, president of the Anchorage-based First Alaskans Institute, which is sponsoring the Alaska Native Education Summit at the Egan Center. The conference ran from Monday through today.

Alaska Native students' test scores are below national and statewide averages, their high school dropout rates are high, and few go on to college.

"Everyone puts their best efforts forward," Mallott told several hundred teachers, principals, school board members and students at the conference, "but we cannot ignore failure. There are areas where more needs to be done."

He proposed a new model for delivering education services along the lines of the health care and social services that, like education, are funded mainly by the federal government. Education should be part of the Native self-determination effort, Mallott said, and communities need decision-making power.

It's an extension of the sovereignty movement, Mallott said. Promises of equal funding and equal opportunity in education haven't worked, he said.

"This is not an indictment," Mallott said, "it's a plea."

Doreen Spear, a Barrow resident now attending the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs "tried to destroy our culture through the education of our children," she said. "No wonder the Inupiat suffer low self-esteem."

Spear demanded changes.

"I do not want my children to hear we were 'discovered' by Columbus or Vitus Bering" or schools to describe subsistence hunting, fishing and whaling as "social activities." She wants English to be North Slope schools' second language, all teachers fluent in Inupiaq, and local culture incorporated into the curriculum.

Frank Hill, co-director of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, said Bush schools can help anchor Native students by becoming "culturally relevant." The Iliamna-raised educator with a Harvard degree said he likes to see teachers born and raised in the villages where they work, schools named for local leaders, and elders given seats of honor at basketball games and assemblies.

Teachers should know the Native language at least enough to welcome students to school, say goodbye and give praise, Hill said, while students should behave to standards set by the community and culture.

Not everyone gives schools so much of the education burden. Melvin "Dumma" Otton, president of the Unalakleet-based Bering Strait School District, said parents, not schools, should teach Native language, culture and moral values.

"In the last 20 years, more and more parents have tried to push that responsibility off to educators. But parents have to retake that responsibility." he said.



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