Making Education Relevant in Saint Mary’s, Alaska

From a distance, it can be hard to tell why some rural school districts seem to work better than others…why some have better test scores, higher attendance and graduation rates. In the next installment of our series “being Young in Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days, Jessica Cochran looks at one Yukon River village – and how the community works together to support the school.

JESSICA COCHRAN: The community of Saint Mary’s sits near where the Andreafsky River flows into the Yukon. It is an area of rolling hills; there are so many ribbons of water, it’s hard to tell if it’s one channel looping around, or many weaving in and out.

The village was founded when a Catholic mission was moved there in 1948; some students boarded at the school, but other families moved nearby so they could be with their kids while they went to school.   When the city incorporated in 1967, it became a First Class City, so that it could have its own single-site school district.

So in some ways, the importance of a good education is part of the fabric of Saint Mary’s. It takes a community-wide effort to make it happen.

[Natural sound from Yupik skills class…]

JC: In a Yupik skills class, instructor Nick Thompson is working with students on eel sticks – long pieces of wood, carved so the edges are smooth, with rows of sharpened nails running down each side.

[Thompson: “They’re on the nail part right now; this is extracurricular…. JC: “So what are the eel sticks used for?” Thompson: “Catching eels…”]

JC: He slowly swishes the stick as if in water.

[Thompson: “…through the water, back and forth, and then you pull ‘em out.”]

JC: One student is mending a fishing net, and others are making harpoons. The students will use these tools they have made on a series of trips, organized by the school each fall. They call them “relevant education” trips; relevant because people in Saint Mary’s live subsistence – they hunt, fish, and gather  much of their food, so the skills they practice on these trips, they use with their families too.  Every student, from kindergarten through12th grade has the chance to go on at least one trip each year. Sixth grader Megan Westdahl:

[Westdahl: “Yeah we stayed overnight and we went blueberry and blackberry picking, and we picked ayaq tea, which is tundra tea, and we learned how to pick them from my classmate Simone’s mom.”]

JC: These aren’t just “field trips”; students have data to collect and assignments to do in the field; a math problem involved using distances and geometry to calculate how high a tree is; for science students collect different kinds of leaves and describe the terrain where they found them; there are daily writing assignments. When students return, they complete projects with the data – displaying them on posters that line the school walls. Theresa Paukan teaches 5th grade:

[Pauken: “Each student weighed their berries in ounces and in pounds and we created class graphs in Excel, and found the minimum, maximum, etc using formulas in Excel. And then we learned about how recipes are written, and we wrote one for agutak, which is Eskimo ice cream and then we followed the recipe to make agutak as a class.”]

JC: Younger students go on day trips; high school students might go on a four day trip to the coast, or the big fall moose hunting trip. Junior Wassilie Tinker didn’t go his 9th grade year; most anyone in the school can tell you the three requirements to participate  – good grades, good attendance, good behavior. For Wassilie, it was motivation to do better. He did his first moose hunting trip as a sophomore  – it was the first time he’d been so far upriver.

[Tinker: “Piemute Slough, beautiful country. Lot of trees, lots of thorns. Its hard work when you get a moose in the meadow and there’s thorns all over.”]

JC: Back at school, the students butchered the moose; some is kept at school, and much is given away:

[Tinker: “One of the staff members drives around and the students give the meat to people. Feels good, not like you’re being stingy. It’s better to give than receive.”]

JC: It’s a back and forth. The community supports the school too. Yupik teacher Lillian Johnson explains that in the fall, residents hosts a potlatch for local students.

[Johnson: “We give a potlatch to show that we support them, to encourage them; it had started  26 or 27 years ago when a lot of our local families couldn’t afford to get supplies for their children, so the mini-potlatch became, where everybody supported everybody else.”]

JC: Members of the community are also essential in making the relevant education trips happen – they are the experienced boat captains who can navigate the rivers, the ones who know where to go to find berries.

[School superintendent Dave Herbert: “The relevant instruction program has really built a sense of pride in the school, which has been there for many many years but it just kind of rekindled the pride in the community, and the students and the parent, in what a great school Saint Mary’s can be.”]

JC: That’s superintendent Dave Herbert.  The program began nine years ago after he started as superintendent.  Previously, achievement had taken a dip, morale was low, lots of students were leaving to go to Mount Edgecumbe. Some school board members had seen other schools go on similar trips, and recalled their own trips to villages when they were students at the Catholic mission school. And the trips have helped: suspensions are down, attendance rates are up. They give new teachers the opportunity to bond with their students and engage with the community early on. But Herbert says the main focus is still on academic standards:

[Herbert: “You  know we’re teaching the state of Alaska standards in all of our classrooms; that’s not negotiable. Our school board has never tried to come up with excuses for not meeting AYP (adequate yearly progress). They’ve always said we’re going to be proactive, we’re not going to come up with excuses, our kids have the ability and will perform.”]

JC: It’s not perfect:

[Afcan: “I know the school has a really good reputation for being pushed into education, but there’s also a downside to everything, and I just like people to know that.”]

JC: Student body president John Afcan says there is still peer pressure against being too studious, still a lot of “troubles” with alcohol and drugs. Test scores have taken a dip after a high in 2009. There are still behavior issues, and suspensions.

But Afcan thinks its improving, that the relevant instruction trips help. And by most accounts, the school is doing pretty well. Two years ago a student got a full scholarship to Stanford University. Most of last year’s graduates are now in college or a vocational program. And future graduates already have some big plans, like junior Aga Thompson:

[Thompson: “I’m thinking about going to Fairbanks for one year, then go to Dartmouth and become a politician.”]

JC: And that’s what the school board wants – for students to graduate with ideas for the future, options, and choices.

This reporting series is a production of the Content Producers Guild and is made possible through funding from the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Initiative for Community Engagement program. For more photos and information please visit

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