Southwest Alaska school district shifts to subsistence calendar in effort to center Yup’ik culture

tents outside
Student’s tents arranged at the district’s summer fish camp. (Woody Woodgate/Yupiit School District)

For years, students in the Yupiit School District in Southwest Alaska were following an unofficial subsistence calendar. This meant that they just wouldn’t show up to classes during bird hunting season in the spring and moose hunting season in the fall.

But now, thanks to a shift to a subsistence calendar, students at the Yupiit School District, a small district comprising only Tuluksak, Akiak, and Akiachak, will no longer have to miss school to go hunting.

To Scott Ballard, the superintendent, it always made sense to change the school year so that it wouldn’t interfere with those activities. When Ballard first began the process of changing the school district’s schedule, he thought that it would be pretty straightforward.

“It’ll be a slam dunk. We’ll petition the commissioner of education, he’ll give us the waiver, and we’ll be done with it,” Ballard said. “It was not simple at all,”

Instead, Ballard said that it took months of phone calls. Ballard morphed from superintendent into activist as he worked to earn support from state senators and representatives. He negotiated with the Alaska Department of Education and its commissioner. Finally, in April, the department approved the waiver for a subsistence calendar. To Ballard, all the effort was worth it.

“We think it’s going to really benefit our students and get our communities connected to the school,” Ballard said. “Instead of seeing the school as this alien institution that occupies their village that promotes Western values and Western instruction.”

The change is simple.

Instead of August through May, school will only be in session from September to the end of April. To make up the time lost, 30 minutes of instruction are added to each day. There is also an optional two-week summer school in August, which incorporates subsistence activities.

Moses Peter, a Yupiit School District board member, said the change is part of a decades-long board initiative to center Yup’ik culture in the district’s educational goals and curriculum.

“We don’t want our future generations to forget who we are,” Peter said. “We want to educate them about our ancestors and how they survived in this harsh environment.”

That effort goes beyond changing the rhythm of the school year. It means incorporating Yup’ik culture into everything the district does.

Woody Woodgate, the federal programs director for the Yupiit School District, said that the district tries to match traditional cultural activities with state educational standards. The summer school this year was a fish camp organized by the district. Woodgate said that the kids loved it.

“They were just coming out, having a blast. They had a chance to do all kinds of activities,” Woodgate said. “They sat around and drank Ayuk tea, tundra tea, and they heard stories from Elders and community members.”

The district is already incorporating activities like fishing, hunting and gathering into their curriculum for the rest of the year. Students will also study other issues important to the community, like river erosion.

Peter believes that this is the best way for kids to learn. It’s how he learned. When he was growing up, his parents would pull him out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs school he attended so he could go to spring camp.

“The actual environment was our education,” Peter said. “How to survive, how to get along as a village, as a whole village.”

Ballard and the board believe that centering Yup’ik culture should permeate every aspect of the school, from the topics students study to the meals that they eat. If students are excited about what they’re learning and eating salmon they caught instead of chicken nuggets for lunch, Ballard believes that they’ll be happier and more engaged in education. If students are happier then teachers are happier, which makes it easier to keep teachers around.

“We’re striving for every child, when they get up in the morning, as much as possible is going to look forward to coming to school,” Ballard said.

This is the district’s first year operating under a subsistence calendar. Ballard said that they’ll be able to assess if the change increased attendance and student engagement by the end of the school year.

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