Alaska has school districts that run the spectrum from large to small and from urban to rural. The director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, Diane Hirshberg, recently spoke about the unique challenges rural schools face and the possible ways districts can help their students. Her comments came during the most recent Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference and Economic Summit held back in March.
Hirshberg says the majority of students that graduate from the University of Alaska system with teaching degrees stay in the cities, because the majority of those students are from cities. She confirms that an obstacle “outside” teachers face when they move to rural towns is the inability to become a part of the community.
“In some villages, if you are a non-indigenous person who is not a part of that village, you can’t buy a house. Unless you marry in, you’re not really a part of that community. And there’s nothing bad about that, it just means that if we want to keep teachers in those communities for 30 years the best thing to do is to have more teachers from those communities.”
Since Alaska is so different than the lower 48, Hirshberg says, it’s important not to shape school districts and curriculum like their models. She says Alaskan schools should create engaging and hands on Alaska specific curriculum that will not only keep the attention of students, but also provide the opportunity to prepare them for life after graduation.
According to the State of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development 2012-2013 Report Card to the Public, over 78 hundred students graduated from an Alaska high school in 2013. Hirshberg says getting students through high school isn’t enough. She says school districts needs to find a way to implement both college prep classes and vocational school classes.
“One of the things we’ve learned over the last couple of decades is a lot of the skills that we used to think were just for students that wanted to go on to higher education are actually skills that they need in technical vocational positions as well. Students need to be able to do higher level math. The equipment that adults are using, whether you are talking about your process technology fields or the skills that you need if you’re running your own fishing company and you need to deal with paperwork and you need to understand the international regulations when you’re going out and running into other fishing fleets from other countries. Those are skills that every graduate needs.”
Getting teachers to come to rural Alaska can often be difficult. The average pay for a teacher starting out in Alaska is $44,000, according to the National Education Association. Hirshberg says other factors, such as teachers leaving Alaska and non-supportive working conditions are the main cause.
“Do you feel supported by the parents in your community? Do you feel supported by the administration in your school? That’s really important.”
Hirshberg says, unlike some states, attendance in Alaskan schools isn’t a problem. Cities like Anchorage have initiatives like 90 By 2020, which seeks to get all students in school at least 90% of the year. However, Hirshberg says that doesn’t solve the whole problem.
“But then there’s still this issue of what’s happening to students when they’re in school. What are they learning and are they completing their degrees?”
She believes the next step is to realize that college isn’t for everyone. She pointed out the opportunities available to students through vocational and technical schools.
“I want a student in Bristol Bay to be able to take over dad’s fishing business or go to Harvard or come to Anchorage or decide to be a hunting guide. They need to have those choices.”
Every school district in Alaska is unique and faces their own set of challenges. However, Hirshberg believes those challenges can be overcome with work by teachers, parents, administrators and the entire community served by a school district.