Alaska’s high school graduation rate lags behind the nation – and Alaska Natives are more likely to drop out of school than others. In rural Alaska, high school students who have their sights set on graduation may not be sure what to do next. In the next installment of our “Being Young in Rural Alaska” series, from the producers of Kids These Days, reporter Mark Arehart looks at an idea designed to keep kids in high school, by giving them a glimpse of their possible futures.
MARK AREHART: Usually this sound [bell] means it’s time to pack up and move on to the next class.
Not these kids, though. They are prepping for the ACT college admissions, and they work straight through the bell. They come from villages across the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta to Bethel for a special program, one that’s not just for kids with straight A’s.
[Daniel Inman] “I was actually failing high school for my first two years. So this is a great was for me to get started again.”
That’s Daniel Inman, he’s a junior from Toksook Bay. He and his classmates are enrolled in accelerated math and science classes, aimed at preparing them for college and eventual careers.
[Daniel Inman] “Right now I’m taking a full year of chemistry and algebra two in half a year.”
Not all village schools can offer the upper level science and math classes students need for some college programs; so this program – called RANSEP– has students split their time between their home villages, Bethel, and a summer session at UAA.
For the Lower Kuskokwim School District, the college prep program is at the center of a larger idea: the hybrid high school.
It’s an effort that brings village students to Bethel for intense learning segments, ranging from a week to an entire semester, then sends them back to their villages better prepared for the next step. Assistant Superintendent Dan Walker.
[Dan Walker] “The whole idea of a hybrid high school would be to find ways to have a positive effect on graduation rate.”
And Walker says to do that, schools need to keep kids engaged.
[Walker] “It’s how do we go about creating that environment, where kids… they want to be at school. So it’s not the only thing, we have to have really high standards in reading, writing, math, science, social studies all of those things. But what we’re finding is that we also have to have these other highly engaging, motivating activities for kids that keep them excited about school. And that’s the whole idea behind this.”
[Plane assembly sound.]
Another branch of LKSD’s hybrid high-school is the Aviation Career Education Academy, or ACE, a special week-long program that also brings kids in to Bethel from villages across the region – kids like Bruce Simons, a 7th grader from Toksook Bay.
[Bruce Simons] “I want to be a pilot when I grow up like my dad. So I can explore Alaska.”
Bruce and other students jump in the cockpit of an old plane used for instruction at the local flight school hangar.
The ACE program is giving kids a chance to delve into how aviation works, both in the classroom and in the field. They are learning about everything from the right conditions for flight…
[Simons] “If there’s turbulence you can’t fly and look at the forecast before you take off.”
… to how to actually put the wings on a plane.
[Andrea Pokrzywinski] “We have 23 students this year.”
Andrea Pokrzywinski directs the Ace program.
[Pokrzywinski] “And we had well over 84 applications, so lots of interest.”
She says students were picked based on the essays they wrote, not just the grades that they’ve made.
Again, Dan Walker of LKSD:
[Walker] “Aviation is huge here in the YK Delta and we’ve got lots of kids who are interested in aviation careers.”
And that’s the reason Walker says the Hybrid High School has been a success; it gives kids that have dreams of growing up and being a doctor or a pilot the tools to learn how to do that.
Kids like Daniel Inman.
[Inman] “It’s given me my motivation back. It’s made it so I want to succeed and I want to get to college. And I want good things for my life again.”
Similar programs to LKSD’s Hybrid High School are in place in Nenana and in the Nome and Bering Straights school districts.
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 KidsTheseDays.org.