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

Students stand in a line in caps and gowns
Graduating seniors line up to receive their high school diplomas at the Bethel Regional High School graduation ceremony on May 16, 2020 in Bethel. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

A proposed bill seeks to address high school dropout rates by putting the education plans in the hands of tribes. 

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

Supporters of the bill say tribal education compacts could lead to a drastic improvement in education for Alaska Native communities, including graduation rates. 

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

The Alaska Federation of Natives collaborated with the state on the bill. AFN wants the state to allow five schools to be included in an initial demonstration project. After five years of funding, the state would reassess what’s working and what’s not. But right now, AFN president Julie Kitka says it’s clear that the Western-centric model isn’t working.

“The state and the commissioners are saying that the state is failing Native 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 the students excel. They want to see our people are going to school, they're being very curious,” Naneng said.

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

Naneng said that years of imposed, colonial Western education in Hooper Bay has led to poor outcomes for students. He says he only attended school because his parents were afraid he’d get taken away. 

Naneng wasn’t allowed to speak Yup’ik in class. He says such practices have led to low graduation rates in the Lower Yukon School District. He worries this makes it look like Yup’ik people don’t care about education, but he said that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Naneng said that Yup’ik people survive through education, but theirs is different from Western education.

“We're taught as, like, life-and-death situation. Things that we needed to know in order to survive and do very well in the environment that we live in,” Naneng said.

In order for students to succeed, Naneng said that they need to be taught in ways that are relevant to their lives. That’s why he says education should be placed in the hands of the tribe.

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

“Greater attendance, greater life skills, greater community support, parent involvement, greater teacher recruitment and retention, all components that make a healthy school,” Kitka said.

Joel Isaak, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s tribal liaison, has been advising the state on what the bill should look like for Alaska Native communities.

Isaak said that the bill was carefully crafted to allow schools to do just what Naneng is asking for — create curriculums and schedules that work for each individual tribe. 

“Alaska is not a monolith. And there's no one clear education model for all Alaska Native peoples, 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 curriculums.

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

Right now, elders are helping plan an entire 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 ensured by the bill will allow her to channel some of the school’s resources away from grant writing and back into the students. Plus, she said that the school will be able to contribute to the local economy.

The schools would still need to match education standards and classroom hours set by the state and have state-certified teachers, but other than that, the tribes could implement whatever they want.

Isaak said that this bill is modeled, in part, on the success of a similar program in the state of Washington. Washington has three tribal-compacted schools, and they’ve done well. 

According to a study done by Evergreen State University, the schools showed improvement in graduation and retention rates, reputation, enrollment, teacher recruitment and retention, and student connection to culture.

Kodiak Sen. 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 serves on the House Education Committee.

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

“I think tribes are a quiet, but mighty, incredible resource to providing culturally relevant services across Alaska. I absolutely am excited about this bill,” Zulkosky said.

The bill must pass through the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees before it can be voted on the floor. If the bill is passed by both the Senate and House and signed by the governor, it will be sent to the next Legislature. If the next Legislature passes the bill, tribal-compacted schools could open their doors as soon as fall 2025.

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