Wednesday, September 2, 2009

State Dept. of Education hiring new rural position

Strange, but one of my first reactions to the announcement in the Peninsula Clarion that the state was hiring a rural education director was, "Wow - they don't have that position already?"

I'm glad that some of this is the focus:

In Alaska, rural often means Native, and LeDoux said working to improve Native education will be a significant part of the new rural director's job.

The idea is to help schools in those areas succeed, despite hurdles they currently face, he said.

"One of the missing ingredients is making sure that our indigenous communities are involved intimately in the education of their children," LeDoux said.


Yet by the end of the article, it is highlighted once again why some understanding of Alaska Native cultures is desperately needed in areas have incredibly low graduation rates, in a demographic that is not thriving under the current system. Yet...

"Pre-Western contact, Alaska Native culture had one of the most precision education systems in the world," he said.

"They were able to effectively pass on hunting, religious values, customs, their entire culture, with such accuracy they were able to thrive in one of the harshest environments on Earth."



It may seem nit-picky about the wording here, but this is something important to understand about one of the reasons Alaska Native students can feel alienated in the Alaska public school system - and not just rural.

The above comment makes me want to ask the state commisioner of the Department of Education what he means by "Alaska Native culture." The widely varying cultures across Alaska are not even close to a united single culture. By this, I don't mean nobody gets along. I mean there are completely different lifestyles, values, traditional educational systems, environments - and not by subtle degrees. Yup'ik people were not taught under the complicated political system Tlingit people developed, and Tlingit children were cared for in a totally different way than the very affectionate way Yup'ik children were raised.

In Anchorage, especially, I studied many different units, and was given talks by teachers about the "Alaska Native culture." It is strange to hear how "your culture" is, and not be able to relate at all to the culture they are describing. Native students make up roughly 20% of the Alaska student population, and in many rural communities a much higher percentage, yet are continually treated as strangers, outsiders.

I applaud the effort of this hiring, but even the statement about the position serves to underscore why such a position is needed. It was frustrating to go through the Alaska school system feeling like an outsider, and feeling like very little, if anything, was being done. I hope the person in this position is able to be heard on real, impactful change. Native students in Alaska have proved time and again they can achieve on a broad basis when culture is taken into consideration.

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