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Lessons in literacy, stem and Yup'ik culture at Dillingham's after school program

Teacher Travis Wren gives a literacy lesson as part of the after school program. October 10, 2023.
Christina McDermott
Teacher Travis Wren gives a literacy lesson. October 10, 2023.

It’s afternoon and about 40 Dillingham Elementary School students are chatting at cafeteria tables. They have just come in from the playground.

The students are part of Dillingham’s new after-school instruction. The 21st Century after-school program, named for the federal initiative that funds it, comes from a partnership between the school district and the nonprofit, Southeast Regional Resource Center.

Four days a week, teachers spend an extra couple of hours giving lessons to kindergarten through third graders in literacy, STEM, physical education, and art.

Rebecca Roenfanz, the lead teacher for the program, and the school’s librarian, said it allows students to learn in a new setting, and work together outside their regular classroom. Students are placed in ‘color teams’ depending on their grade level.

“In these color teams, the teachers are focused on trying to help the kids understand that we’re a group, and even if you may know this concept, someone next to you might not. And so being able to work together to try to accomplish a goal, that’s our community. That’s what we do in Dillingham,” she said.

The program has a set structure: first, students spend time playing outside. Then, after a snack, kids form their groups and head to either a classroom or the gym for a scheduled lesson. Teacher Travis Wren gives STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) lessons, teacher Eric Marr focuses on physical education and counselor Petra Scott covers social-emotional learning instruction.

The Dillingham site program director, Julie Jessal, said the program gives students an opportunity to learn outside the classroom.

“It's more activity-based. It's more fun than the regular school day, but it gets at the academic learning that is appropriate for that grade level,” she said.

Students participate in a literacy lessons with teacher Eric Marr as part of Dillingham's after school program. October 10, 2023.
Christina McDermott
Students participate in a literacy lesson as part of Dillingham's after school program. October 10, 2023.

Jessal said every student engages in a quick literacy lesson before starting the day’s activities.

“All kids get a short, direct instruction on phonemic awareness, on phonics, and eventually move into fluency,” she said. “It’s a real focus on literacy.”

Developing phonemic awareness - that’s the ability to recognize individual sounds in words - is one skill elementary school students are tested on throughout the year, per the Alaska’s Reads Act requirements. The act, which went into effect in July, aims to raise third graders’ reading scores. As of this year, a state report said that about 80% of Alaska’s third graders are not proficient readers.

Principal Nick Tweet said he hopes the extra lessons will help reinforce classroom teaching.

“One of our strategic goals is to raise the literacy in our school. And the more time that kids have with the materials, the better they're going to do,” he said.

The school is also working with University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay 4-H Program coordinator Deanna Baier, who gives lessons on traditional Yup’ik culture to students around Bristol Bay. Every few weeks, Baier teaches a cultural lesson and facilitates a new activity. Recently, she said, the students focused on owls, including their role in traditional culture and the ecosystem.

“We talked about owls and how owls are incorporated into our culture. And the kids talked about how they would benefit from predator control,” she said. “They got some owl pellets and we learned where they come from.”

Baier said she also taught a lesson for Orange Shirt Day. Held on September 30, Orange Shirt Day remembers the Indigenous children who were sent to residential boarding schools through the nineteenth and twentieth century, and honors their healing. She said she discussed with students the impact of the boarding schools on Yup’ik culture, and why it is important to keep that culture.

“We watched ‘Molly of Denali: Grandpa's Drum’ and talked about how a grandpa going to boarding school was affected. And the kids made little mini Yup’ik drums.”

Deanna said connecting the future with the past is her goal in this work, and that through collaborating with the school, she is able to reach more kids.

“We work very well together. And we understand that, you know, alone we can reach a few kids,” she said. “But if we work together and collaborate we can reach so many more.”

The program also aims to create an environment where students can grow emotionally. Kristin McTague, the program’s coordinator, said that social-emotional learning is especially important after the pandemic, when many students did not socialize as they normally would.

“Students need a chance to process their feelings and put a name to their feelings and figure out how to work best with others,” she said.

The after school program spent ten years in Kotzebue before coming to Dillingham. State-guided evaluations of the program there found that many students improved on standardized tests, as well as other, qualitative benchmarks, like cooperation skills.

The program does demand a lot of its teachers. While it provides set lesson plans and additional compensation, it requires that they work extra long days. Principal Tweet said the instructors, Marr, Wren and Scott give it their all - and he thinks that will make a big difference.

“We found some pretty hardworking people that can commit to the whole year. And that's going to pay dividends for us,” he said.

Dillingham’s after school program will follow the school calendar throughout the year.

Students in Dillingham's after school program. 2023.
Courtesy of Julie Jessal
Students in Dillingham's after school program. 2023.

Disclaimer: The Dillingham City School District owns KDLG's broadcasting license, but it does not influence or direct our coverage.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.
This story was updated with the story's audio.

Christina McDermott began reporting for KDLG, Dillingham’s NPR member station, in March 2023. Previously, she worked with KCBX News in San Luis Obispo, California, where she focused on local news and cultural stories. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich work that informs and connects the public.