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'Project Enhance' increases number of Native teachers

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - A grant to help increase the number of indigenous teachers in Alaska has successfully graduated three Native students from the state's interior since its inception in 2004. Called ''Project Enhance,'' the program pays for the college education of upper-level students who are interested in entering the education field, teaching them about the region's indigenous cultures.

''Statistics show that Native students are way below other minorities, so the thought was that if we could get more Native teachers in these schools, perhaps we could help raise the scores of these kids,'' Larry Schafer, coordinator of Doyon Ltd., explained.

The Association of Interior Native Educators had the idea and wrote the grant, which was funded by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Division of Indian Education Programs. The association didn't have the infrastructure at that point, so they asked Doyon to serve as the supervisor of the grant.

Doyon is one of 13 Alaska Native regional corporations that was created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. It encompasses a huge portion of central Alaska, 12.5 million acres, that largely coincided with the area served by AINE, and was a good fit for overseeing the grant. The 12.5 million acres that it encompasses in central Alaska largely coincided with the area served by AINE, making Doyon a good fit for overseeing the grant.

Schafer was hired to replace the original coordinator at Doyon when that individual died of a sudden heart attack. Schafer is not Native, but was adopted into the Tlingit and Haida tribes 44 years ago. He explained that the program started in 2004 and this phase will be largely ending this year. The original goal was to locate 15 juniors or seniors in college who were interested in education or still undecided. ''We tried to show them the advantages and rewards of being a teacher. Another enticement is that we have a pretty strong financial program to support them.''

Each student is given $1,775 a month plus $275 per child if they have children. They also receive all of their books and tuition money through this grant. With a family, that could be $2,500 a month for 10 months plus another $10,000 for books and tuition, equaling about $35,000 a year.

''We didn't want to just train more Native teachers and run them through a straight educational system. They would take all the required courses from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to get their teaching certificate but then they were provided extracurricular educational enrichment experiences, mostly based on Indian culture,'' Schafer explained.

''We had them meet with contemporary well-known Native educators, plus old traditional people and elders. We had them become experienced at looking at Native curriculum, things that are available throughout the district and state for them to use. We took them to a bilingual conference in Anchorage for three days that pertains to Native education. We had an Athabaskan booth with Athabaskan curriculum,'' Schafer continued. The Alaskan interior, where Doyon lands are located, is largely an Athabaskan population. ''It's a real eye-opener with all the things that exist which they can use in their classrooms.

''The other stuff we worked with them on is learning styles. How to learn a child's learning style. What makes it easier for this child to learn and then set up accordingly to help that child. It's kind of an up and coming thing,'' Schafer said.

The students have an obligation once they graduate. They must work at least three years in schools with Native students. Furthermore, if they don't go to work within six months, they have to begin paying the money back.

At this point, three former students are working as teachers and more are expected to begin in the fall. The majority indicate they want to return to their home communities to teach.

The original goals have been met. Fourteen students will have graduated by this spring semester and the 15th will graduate in 2008. Most are Athabaskan students from the interior. There is talk of expanding the program statewide, although nothing has been done yet.

''We're looking at a continuation of this program and are getting it together now for submission,'' Schafer said. ''It will be a similar program, but for principals or administrative and specialist certificates - someone wanting a degree in special education, curriculum development or counseling. We've gotten some money and hired a director now for AINE. Now with their infrastructure in place, they'll handle the program themselves.''