Alaska Senate bill aims to address low graduation rates by allowing tribes to set curriculum

Graduating students line up to receive their high school diplomas during the Bethel Regional High School graduation ceremony on May 16, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska. Alaska Senate bill would create pilot program for Alaskan Native Tribes to begin operating their own public schools through a compact agreement with the State of Alaska. Proponents say the bill could address low graduation rates and improve education in Alaska Native communities. (Photo by Katie Basil/KYUK)

A bill aims to tackle high school dropout rates by putting education plans in the hands of tribes.

Senate Bill 34 would create a pilot program for Alaska Native tribes to begin operating their own public schools through a compact agreement with the state of Alaska. These agreements allow tribes to create K-12 programs.

Proponents of the bill say tribal education pacts could lead to drastic improvement in education for Alaska Native communities.

Alaska ranks among the bottom states for graduation rates. Within the state, Alaska Native students drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers. According to data from the past three decades, schools in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta consistently have the highest dropout rates in the state.

The Federation of Alaska Natives worked with the state on the bill. The AFN wants the state to allow five schools to be included in a first demonstration project. After five years of funding, the state would reevaluate what works and what doesn’t. But right now, AFN President Julie Kitka says it’s clear the Western-centric model isn’t working.

“The state and the commissioners say the state is failing Indigenous students right now,” Kitka said.

Hooper Bay Elder William Naneng also supports the bill.

“Our people and our parents want to learn, they want to see students excel. They want to see our people go to school, they are very curious,” Naneng said.

Naneng sits on the board of a new charter school in Hooper Bay. The school’s curriculum is centered on Yup’ik values, called yuuyaraq. He hopes the state will choose his school in the first round of demonstration projects.

Naneng said years of colonial Western education imposed on Hooper Bay led to poor student outcomes. He says he only went to school because his parents were afraid he would be taken away.

Naneng was not allowed to speak Yup’ik in class. He says such practices have resulted in low graduation rates in the Lower Yukon School District. He fears this gives the impression that the Yup’ik don’t care about education, but he said that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Naneng said the Yup’ik survive through education, but theirs is different from western education.

“We are taught as a life or death situation. Things we needed to know to survive and do well in the environment we live in,” Naneng said.

For students to succeed, Naneng said they need to be taught in ways that are relevant to their lives. This is why he says that education should be placed in the hands of the tribe.

Kitka said she hopes a culturally relevant education can lead to better outcomes for Indigenous students.

“Greater attendance, better life skills, greater community support, parental involvement, better teacher recruitment and retention, all of which make for a healthy school,” Kitka said.

Joel Isaak, Tribal Liaison Officer with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, advised the state on what the bill should look like for Alaska Native communities.

Isaak said the bill was carefully crafted to allow schools to do exactly what Naneng asks – create programs and schedules that work for each tribe.

“Alaska is not a monolith. And there’s no clear education model for all Alaska Native people, that’s not the case,” Isaak said.

If this bill becomes law, tribes will be able to restructure their school years around subsistence activities and create their own programs.

In Hooper Bay, charter school principal Jamie Wollman said the bill could allow him more consistent funding to hire local elders to help teachers plan their lessons.

Right now, the elders are helping to plan a whole curriculum around eggs. Bird eggs in the spring and fish eggs in the summer help infuse local traditions into traditional Western teaching.

Wollman said the funds secured by the bill will allow him to channel some of the school’s resources away from writing grants and put them back into students. Additionally, she said the school will be able to contribute to the local economy.

Schools should still meet education standards and class times set by the state and have state-certified teachers, but other than that, tribes could implement whatever they want.

Isaak said this bill is inspired, in part, by the success of a similar program in Washington state. Washington has three compact tribal schools, and they’ve done well.

According to a study by Evergreen State University, schools showed improved graduation and retention rates, reputation, enrollment, teacher recruitment and retention, and students’ connection to culture.

Kodiak Senator Gary Stevens first introduced the bill in the Alaska Senate. Bethel Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky sponsored the House version. Zulkosky also chairs the House Tribal Affairs Committee and sits on the House Education Committee.

Zulkosky said the tribes have great infrastructure and ideas in place to help support compaction projects. She pointed out that there is already a good model in place for the compaction of education: tribal health care.

“I think the tribes are a silent, yet powerful and incredible resource for providing culturally relevant services across Alaska. I am absolutely thrilled with this bill,” Zulkosky said.

The bill must go through the Senate Judiciary and Finance Committees before it can be voted on on the floor. If the bill passes both the Senate and the House and is signed by the governor, it will be sent to the next legislature. If the next legislature passes the bill, compact tribal schools could open as early as fall 2025.

Norman D. Briggs