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Rural Alaska : Are We There Yet?

What Can Kids Do?

September 13, 2007 · Posted in Rural Alaska, Teaching 2.0 · 2 Comments 

This morning I was made aware of a very powerful web site called What Kids Can Do. WKCD’s purpose is to promote adolescents as valuable resources (rather than as problems) and to showcase the power of what young people can accomplish when given proper opportunity and support. The Feature Stories and Special Collections sections of WKCD contain wonderful case studies of young people in action reforming schools, creating new knowledge, and even learning how to subsist in rural Alaska.

It was the latter that provided my introduction to WKCD. A student of mine from Russian Mission, AK wrote a compelling blog post about how the school there handles the subsistence issue in rural Alaska. Many rural Alaskans depend on fishing, hunting, and gathering to provide food for the winter, and this sometimes conflicts with school schedules. (You know–the schedule that lets us out in the summer months to work on the farm…) Following the author’s suggestion to google “Russian Mission school subsistence” led me to WKCD and a wonderful article (“Outside Is Our School”) about Russian Mission’s school-based subsistence program. I won’t spoil the beauty of the words and images contained in the article, other than to tell you that I learned something very important today. You can too.

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Education in Rural Alaska

August 28, 2007 · Posted in NCLB, Rural Alaska, Teaching 2.0, Web 2.0 · Comment 

Three weeks ago, I spent a very exciting and enlightening week with a dozen pre-service teachers from rural Alaska. This was an “intensive” class–a week of face-to-face teaching and learning followed by a semester of distance-delivered coursework. This was an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic group which gave me much hope for the quality of instruction in our rural sites. I learned as much from this group as I hope they did from me.

I was reminded of an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the many problems faced by rural Alaska educators (“In Alaska, School Equity Elusive”). This article outlined a number of challenges faced by rural school systems, made even more problematic by the No Child Left Behind litany of exit exams, highly-qualified teachers, and adequate yearly progress. Finding a “highly qualified teacher” is impossible when one of the main challenges is finding a teacher at all:

“Educators have cited several reasons for rural schools’ woes: poor language skills among students, a dearth of early education opportunities, alcohol abuse and other social problems in the communities, and a difficulty in attracting and retaining teachers. The last is probably the biggest challenge, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. “If you don’t retain teachers, you get, by definition, inexperienced people,” he says.”

Add to that inadequate teacher housing, lack of services (including such basics as grocery stores and running water), and cultural gaps and you have an educational system that typically underserves rural students. This notion was underscored by a recent Alaska Superior Court decision that found that rural education quality was so poor that rural students should not be required to pass the same exam that their urban counterparts take.

” “It is fundamentally unfair for the State to hold students accountable for failing this exam when some students in this state have not been accorded a meaningful opportunity to learn the material on the exam – an opportunity that the State is constitutionally obligated to provide them,” Judge Gleason said in her ruling. The state must do more to improve education in troubled districts, located in generally impoverished areas of rural Alaska, before reinstating the exit-exam requirement, Gleason said.”

It seems a bit like a Catch-22–some rural students aren’t qualified to take the state-required exit exam because of poor educational preparation, but the state is required to provide adequate preparation for all of its students so that they can pass the exit exam that all Alaska students are required to pass, but some rural students aren’t qualified…

That’s why I was so encouraged by the dedication and enthusiasm of the students in my intensive class. They have a real chance to make a positive difference in their schools and districts once they become teachers. I think it’s already beginning. I require the students to keep blogs about their experiences living and teaching in their towns and villages. Their reflections about life in rural Alaska provide some powerful stories that we all need to hear. An example–this post in Betty’s Uqqaluvut blog profiles life in Kivalina [aerial photo], a small whaling village north of the Arctic Circle. It should be required reading.

I’m convinced that Web 2.0 technologies can play a meaningful part in changing the nature of education in rural Alaska. We need to tell the stories of education in rural Alaska, and the best people to tell those stories are the folks that live and teach there. In future blog entries, I’ll be linking to some of the place-based projects that my students will be undertaking this semester. Stay tuned…

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