'Conflicting Landscapes: American Schooling/Alaska Natives’

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When it comes down to the education of Alaska Native children, the system has a long way to go before it can close the curtain on statistics that reveal academic under performance and high dropout and suicide rates year after year.

Clifton Bates and Rev. Michael J. Oleksa know first-hand the problems plaguing Native students, especially in villages.

In their collaboration “Conflicting Landscapes: American Schooling/Alaska Natives,” the authors address the problems and offer suggestions for improvement.

The authors say the crux of the floundering educational system stems from teachers who enter with a complete lack of knowledge about the culture, customs and mores of the village and the children they plan to teach.

Bates said 95 percent of teachers come from out of state, and none are required to receive formal training on the village they are about to enter. “We wouldn’t send someone into Bolivia in the Peace Corps without effectively preparing them to live there with the people and to work there,” he said.

The authors agree that most Alaska Native students talk less than westernized counterparts, which may seem like an oxymoron to outsiders as they come from a culture of oral tradition. Yet, they address the communication and learning styles of Native children as positive when students are exposed to a learning environment that enhances their assets.

Instead of pining through the barrage of negative statistics, they take the narrative storytelling approach, and it works for them.

Statistics, Bates said, are one click away on Internet search engines for those readers looking for hard data on Alaska’s educational system. “It’s a real disturbing set of data. We were trying to keep the book narrative without placing the usual kind of depressing statistics glaringly out there like that.”

The first two sections of the book chronicle each author’s experience and the sidebars feature a variety of stories that serve to highlight their varying interactions among teachers, administrators, students and parents.

Oleksa begins by revealing his childhood fascination with American Indians. He shares his educational background and entrance into the ministry of the Christian Orthodox church. He also chronicles some early history of Alaskan Native culture and education, and the current fractured educational system that has turned many happy kindergarten children into frustrated and disappointed high school dropouts.

The reverend has a long history in Alaska. He moved from Pennsylvania to the Alutiiq Village of Old Harbor on Kodiak Island to fill the role as a volunteer pastor in 1970. He embraced the community and spent countless hours visiting residents who shared their not-so-great experiences with the state’s educational system.

When Oleksa first arrived, the village had no radio and television. The only newcomers that came and went were the teachers.

This steady turnover rate continues today, and despite discussion about the problem, dysfunction in village schools continues to grow with devastating consequences on Native youth. “I don’t blame the newcomers for that, I blame the system,” he said.

Oleksa currently teaches Communicating Across Cultures and Alaska Alive! at Alaska Pacific University. Teachers planning to obtain an Alaska teaching certificate must complete three semester hours in Alaska studies and three semester hours in multicultural education or cross-cultural communications.

He believes that while courses offer a sweeping view of Alaska Native culture, a student planning to teach in one of the villages should learn as much as possible to ensure success in their new venture. “The orientation should be cultural specific for that region. You have to start all over again if you move to a different part of the state.”

While visiting, Alutiiq families helped bring Oleksa closer to the community. He said there are school administrators that discourage teachers from interacting with the local village residents, resulting in clannish behavior among the teachers in the village. “It’s not something in writing, but something they are told by their superiors,” he said.

In addition to teaching at the university, he teaches workshops abroad to promote “intercultural understanding interracial harmony.” He currently lives in Anchorage with his Yup’ik wife, Xenia.

Bates shares his personal experiences with educators and Native students, and scenarios that had placed teachers and administrators in uncomfortable situations.

He wanted to dispel the myth of “a good teacher is a good teacher period.” He refers to Judith Kleinfeld’s scholarly study, “Effective Teachers of Indian and Eskimo High School Students.” Kleinfeld said the most effective teachers of Alaska Native students are “supportive” by combining personal warmth and concern with high academic demand. Students that experience this teaching model aim to please their teacher and often excel.

On the downside, Bates said that teachers Kleinfeld deemed as rigid and emotionally distant, and those that expect low academic performance, has led to the current ineffective system in place.

Bates said poor academic performance is most often blamed on a variety of factors, such as lack of parental support and high drug and alcohol rates, along with a number of social ills. “It’s never looking at the school system or something they’re doing as a teacher.”

The highly effective teachers and administrators that leave a village to assume a new position, usually take their recipe for success to the next school. So, the school often resumes its former pattern of dysfunction.

He explained that ineffective teachers who remain in villages for longer periods of time do the most damage. Some stay to enjoy the fishing and hunting in the area, while others have been fired from another district and this may be their last resort.

Bates has worked in the Alaska educational system for more than 30 years; he started as an English teacher and became a principal. He has worked in the field as an administrator and curriculum developer.

Until a major reform in the educational system takes place, Bates recommends “Conflicting Landscapes,” and literature recommended in the book, to all teachers headed for Native villages.

The duo poses a strong argument in favor of change, and has garnered many Native supporters that demand the community stand up and fight for the children.

For instance, Sarah Scanlan, deputy director of Rural Alaska Community Action program, wants Native parents to break the silence and come forward and say what they want for their children. Scanlan, Inupiaq, said 40 to 60 percent of Native students drop out of school, and the ones that go to college have a difficult time completing because they lack basic study and comprehension skills. “When our Native kids are failing, so is the whole of Alaska.”

The release of the book has grabbed the attention of Larry LeDoux, Alaska Commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development.

For information on purchasing “Conflicting Landscapes,” visit www.kuskokwim.com/investments.php.