The Alaska Superintendents Association has named Bill Hill of the Bristol Bay Borough School District the state’s superintendent of the year.
Hill grew up in Kokhanok, a village on Iliamna Lake. His family moved to Naknek in the Bristol Bay Borough when he was in high school, and he graduated in 1987. He went to college at the University of Alaska Anchorage and taught in Juneau for six years, but the Bristol Bay area has always been his home.
Now, more than 30 years after graduating from the Bristol Bay Borough school, the Alaska Association of Superintendents has named Hill superintendent of the year for his work in that district.
“The fact that I’ve received an award is really a reflection of a lot of work done by a lot of people, not just in the borough, but across the region,” he said in an interview in early October.
Hill prides himself on working with other school districts and communities in the region to create opportunities for students and teachers, and he’s happy that in the Bristol Bay Borough, many of the people involved with the school are from the area.
“Bristol Bay Borough School District is super fortunate to have a high percentage of our own graduates working here,” he said. “I’d say 50% or greater of the people who work here graduated from Bristol Bay.”
Hill has worked as the school district’s superintendent since 2013. He said during that time, the school board has been willing to pursue some unconventional initiatives.
That includes the Bristol Bay Regional Career and Technical Education Program, which provides opportunities for high schoolers to explore vocations and training in the region. In 2019 it expanded to include all four Bristol Bay area school districts.
“The first time that the four school boards sat down together and discussed CTE was just a real shining moment for me, just knowing the power that that would have for kids here,” Hill said. “That required the boards of four districts saying, ‘Hey, let’s all work together and provide our students with some opportunities that we can’t do alone.’”
The schools worked with the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s education foundation to fund the program, which has become popular among young people interested in everything from welding and commercial fishing to the legal system and digital storytelling.
Hill said BBNC has supported the region’s school districts in starting a middle school academy for the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. He and other superintendents from the region also worked with BBNC and the University of Alaska to develop an experiential master’s degree for teachers in rural communities.
“It recognizes the efforts that people have to go to to teach in bush Alaska, it provides them with credit for those things that are learned that are not necessarily coursework. And it provides them with a master’s degree at a really low cost,” he said. “The hope is that this program will help make people — our teachers — more culturally competent. It will give them a reward for being in our region and staying in our region. And it will give our district some longevity in the staffing that they hire.”
Hill has received this award at a critical moment in education. Schools in rural Alaska and across the country are struggling with teacher shortages. The state hasn’t provided pensions to new teachers since 2006 and many are blaming the staff shortage on a lack of a defined benefit plan. Educators and advocates also point to a flatlined state education budget in the face of record-high inflation.
Hill said the turnover in teachers hurts student performance, and school districts need to identify some of the key issues to recruiting and retaining staff. For instance, he said, the state’s retirement system doesn’t provide long term security for its employees.
“We need to look at the details behind: How do we provide them with a good retirement? How do we provide them with a good paycheck and make sure that they can focus solely on the craft of teaching?” he said. “I think we have some work to do but we have some great people in our region and I think we can make a huge difference if we can just make sure we honor teachers and provide people support in becoming teachers.”
Hill’s mother is of German-Irish descent, and his father is Dena’ina and Finnish. That, along with his roles as a member of the Naknek Native Village Council and president of the village corporation Paug-Vik Village Inc., has informed his career.
“I spent all of my life associated with the Dena’ina culture, but in probably a broader context,” he said. “So culture has been a part of my life since the beginning.”
Hill said it’s important to recognize the specific Yup’ik, Alutiiq and Dena’ina cultures in Bristol Bay as well as the broader influence of forces like commercial fishing. He said cultural curricula should vary across the state and even within the region.
“I think when students know where they are from, they become more successful in life, they have a grounding in who they are and where they’re from,” he said “It makes them stronger people long-term. And so the way that culture is implemented in schools is going to vary school by school. And it’s really going to vary based on who your cultural resources are.”
Hill said his roots help him tune into the district’s needs, and he’s thankful to do this work in his home.
“The meaning behind serving your community is, for me, much greater when it’s the community I come from. And just having the opportunity to be a part of Bristol Bay Borough School District in a larger role, to be able to do some things that I feel like our community really wanted, that just means the world to me,” he said.
Hill is the second superintendent from the Bristol Bay area to receive the superintendent award in the past two years. The Alaska Superintendents Association honored the Lake and Peninsula Borough’s Ty Mase with the same award in 2020.
Hill will be recognized at the School Superintendent Association 2023 AASA National Conference on Education in February and will be Alaska’s nominee for the national superintendent of the year.
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