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Are Alaska Native children being left behind in Bush education act?

WASHINGTON - On Jan. 8, 2002, with a bold stroke of his pen, President Bush decreed that sweeping reforms would profoundly alter the countenance of elementary and high school education in the United States, from the sun-drenched Keys of South Florida to Alaska's rain-soaked forests and perma-frosted tundra.

Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act resonated like rolling thunder through America's educational system and sparked intense debates about its feasibility, efficacy and inclusiveness, especially in poor and minority communities.

The measure calls for schools to account for their students' collective academic performance and publicly post their achievements on annual school "report cards;" it increases local outlook by giving schools more latitude in how they spend federal monies; it puts renewed emphasis on tried-and-true teaching methods; and it mandates that teachers have a major degree in each subject they teach.

Furthermore, the bill calls for options for children who attend schools that are deemed sub-par. Parents will soon be able to send their children to charter schools or other public schools using federal vouchers if their own schools are found wanting.

But many Native American communities are far too isolated for the "No Child Left Behind" Act's proposed parental options to have any real effect on children's choices of schools; this is especially true in Alaska, where Native villages are often on islands or ensconced in remote areas hundreds of miles from their closest neighbor.

Angoon is a small Native village on Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska. It is hundreds of miles from the nearest city, and is accessible only by boat or plane. Angoon is, in many ways, typical of Native communities all over Alaska.

Richard Lee, principal of both Angoon's elementary and high schools, is skeptical of the "No Child Left Behind" Act's potential to be effective in Alaska. Lee specifically questioned the appropriateness of the federal voucher system in remote Native Alaskan communities.

"The bill is written from the standpoint of communities connected by roads that have other school options within commuting distance," Lee said. "That's not representative of most communities in Alaska."

"What would you do, fly students to another community?" he asked.

Ronalda Cadiente, who is Juneau's Indian Education program director and the principal of Yaa Koos G? Daaka Hiedi (Tlingit for "House of Knowledge"), Juneau's alternative high school, concurred with Lee.

Juneau is Alaska's capital and one of its few urban areas, but the proposed voucher system is unrealistic even there, Cadiente said.

"In the lower 48, you might be able to transfer to another school or school district," she said. "We simply don't have that choice here."

U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige, who recently visited several rural schools in Alaska, remains convinced that the act's provisions can be applied to Alaska.

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But in addition to Native students' potential inability to attend alternative charter schools, the requirement that all teachers have targeted degrees may prove especially onerous for Alaska, Lee said.

About 30 percent of Alaska's schools have three or fewer teachers and teacher turnover rates are extreme. And Alaska, like all states, has budgetary concerns.

"We have many small schools where instructors are teaching multiple subject areas," Lee said. "The expectation that they be certified in each of those subject areas would cost a fortune."

"If teachers have to be certified in specific areas, that will have an impact on turnover rate," he said. "Turnover rates are already high."

Cadiente also expressed concern regarding the emphasis the act places on Native students' test-taking ability.

"The accountability is fine to a certain degree" she said. "But in terms of Indian student performance, I think it's atrocious that we're looking at testing data as a measure of progress."

Academic tests have historically been culturally biased, and should not be regarded as indicia of students' or schools' abilities, Cadiente said.

"Typically, Native students don't perform well on standardized tests," she said.

Sealaska Corporation, the largest and wealthiest of Alaska's regional Native corporations, has taken political stands in the past, primarily on cultural issues. But the corporation neither endorses nor opposes the "No Child Left Behind" Act.

"Sealaska doesn't take a position on every piece of legislation that comes out," said Corporate Secretary Maxine Reichert.

"We definitely support quality education for our shareholders and descendants," she said. "But we haven't taken a position on this act."

Good intentions, disinterest and debates not withstanding, somewhere in the remote coastal Alaskan rainforest, a young Native mother picks vine-ripened salmonberries, clutches a baby to her breast and hopes for a better life and education for her child. And thousands of miles away, separated by another country and a chasm of cultural differences, a policy maker in Washington, makes decisions that will directly impact her child's future.

Dave Stephenson, Tlingit, is Indian Country Today's Alaska correspondent. He can be reached at stephenson101@hotmail.com.