Native Village Youth and Education News

May 1, 2009 Issue 198 Volume 2

Tutors work to boost Alaska Native students
Condensed by Native Village

Anchorage, Alaska:  Native students have the highest dropout rate in Anchorage.  Last year, scores took a dive. Results in math, reading and writing were 15% lower than non-Native students. Now the Anchorage School District, nonprofits and tribal groups hope to close the test-score gap between the city's 4,200 Native students and the other 48,000 students.

Last year the school district spent about $2,000,000 of federal money on tutors for native youth. But with more Native students moving to Anchorage  from rural areas, the School Board tapped their own general fund to increase the tutoring staff by 33%.

And while administrators say modest gains have been made, the gap is still big.  "The needs of Alaska Native/American Indian students are profound," the district said.

By the end of ninth grade, only 58% of Native students had enough credits to be on track to graduate in four years. That compares to 77% of all students.

Only 1% of Natives took higher-level high school courses compared with 8% of all students.

66% of Native students didn't graduate after four years of high school.

The problem starts at a young age. Roger Sampson, former Alaska education commissioner, says students who aren't reading at grade level by the third grade have a slim chance of catching. Last year, only 67% of the city's Native 3rd-graders read at grade level compared. That compares with 81% of all students.


It's not just poorer test results.  The problems are varied:

Teachers usually reward the most animated students, when Native children are taught to be demure.

Many Native kids come to school without breakfast.

Westernized curriculum teaches young children unfamiliar words like teacup, cow and sailboat.

 Many Native homes are not highly verbal.

Native boys, in particular, are not reached by many of the usual instructional methods,

"We are not understanding the home culture," said Doreen Brown, the district's Indian Education supervisor. "We are so good at the academic culture we don't understand the home culture. We don't understand the home language. We, as educators, don't understand the experiences that these kids are coming to us with, and it's very different than white middle class. It's not bad, it's just very different."

Brown, who is Yup'ik,  knows many Native students are straddling two worlds, just as she did growing up in Anchorage. "My people have been educated for thousands of years, tens of thousands of years. We've been educated, we've survived in the harshest environments. And I can look at my own life and I'm technically only the third generation to go to school. That's not a large amount of time," she said.

Brown runs summer enrichment programs and after-school tutoring. She works on dropout prevention. She does crisis-intervention. And she secures federal grant money, or any grants she can find, to make it all happen.

Brown says education must be made culturally responsive.  "A lot of Native students don't want to be the center of attention," she said. "They don't want to raise their hands, 'I know the answer! I know the answer!' "

Research shows that, to make a different, students and tutors need to work together at least 30 minutes in 3 or more sessions each week. But sometimes that isn't happening.

Thousands of  Native and part-Natives students are eligible for the Indian Education services. Lack of funds enables only 30% of them to be helped. Tutors are placed at the schools with the highest population of Natives. Within those schools, only the kids who score worst are tutored. 

Tutor Kerri Wood said Native fifth-graders at Tyson school aren't being tutored because of scheduling conflicts. Some sixth graders only get tutoring  twice a week.

 "Looking at the data and making adjustments to teaching style is something we take seriously," Wood said. "If things aren't working, we have to change it. And if it's still not working, we need to change it again."



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