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Aurora Institute

Teaching through the Culture: Native Education in a Performance-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity, Learn Lessons from the Field

5 student at t
A Student at Tatitlek

This is the sixth post in the Chugach School District series. Read the first, second, thirdfourth, and fifth posts here.

Living in New Mexico, I think and learn about Native education more than I ever have before. In Alaska, over 16 percent of the student population is Alaska Native, which means it is even more important that schools there are designed to fully serve the interests of the eleven language groups and twenty-plus dialects: Athabascan, Alutiiq (you might be more familiar with this spelled as Aleutic), Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Inupiaq, and St. Lawrence Island Yupik.

Above all else, Chugach School District values it students, families, and communities; therefore, they value the culture of the Alutiiq people who live in Chenega Bay and Tatitlek. The CSD performance-based system has been co-designed with Alutiiq communities. Given that CSD is the first district to design a competency-based district, it raises the question, “Is competency education rooted in Alaskan Native values?”

There are several aspects of how Chugach School District embraces Native Education within a universal structure and process:

1. It Starts with Respect; Respect is Shown Through Listening and Partnership

It all started when school board and community members from Whittier and the Alutiiq villages of Chenega Bay and Tatitlek questioned district leadership about low achievement scores and the fact that their children were not reading and writing at grade level. The first response was the same as in most districts; a scripted reading program was selected and implemented throughout the district. However, the district leadership listened and realized there was a fundamental issue that needed to be addressed: the CSD education system wasn’t designed to meet the needs of their students. The next step was redesigning to be able to personalize education and adapt to the changing needs of students, families, and communities. The school board made a five-year commitment to ensure there would be time for effective implementation and mid-course adjustments.

Respect is also shown through partnership. It’s embedded in the CSD mission: The Chugach School District is committed to developing and supporting a partnership with students, parents, community and business which equally shares the responsibility of empowering students to meet the needs of the ever changing world in which they live. The emphasis on respect, interdependence, and being able to adapt are all rooted in Alaska Native culture.

Most districts decide what they want to do and then design community engagement around “buy-in.” Not so at CSD. Superintendent Bob Crumley explains, “It starts with partnership. If our schools don’t work for students and families, then they aren’t effective. We need to work in partnership to respond to new challenges and to encourage co-design to make sure new ideas will work. Students need to own the system. If they only buy into the system, then they can easily start resisting it. It is important that students, parents, and educators are in partnership towards a shared goal.” 

Andrea Korbe, school board member and parent of a student at Whittier Community School, emphasized the importance of having a shared ownership of the district. “Bob and the school board members have a commitment to shared leadership. Each school has a different personality, select different themes every year, and have even identified different values that are rooted in their conversations with their communities. However, all the school board members, regardless where they live, take responsibility for all three physical school sites, FOCUS homeschoolers, and the VTE Statewide Residential School. This means that we, as a school board, have to listen to one another to understand the issues confronting each of the communities and their schools. We also have to design ways to resolve issues that strengthen the entire district.”

The link between the communities, students, school board, district, and educators is constantly reinforced. For example, Korbe highlighted, “The school board feels very connected to our schools and our students. In fact, as students prepare to graduate, they make a presentation to the school board, sometimes in person but usually by phone or Skype. It’s a way of creating a feedback loop, as we can see what students are learning, what they value, and hear feedback about their experience.”

2. Comprehensive Content Domains Shaped Around the Whole Child

CSD has organized education around levels and standards, rather than grade levels and courses. When designing the content areas (standards) they did so based on what parents and communities said they wanted for their children. The result was ten content areas which are all considered equally important

  1. Mathematics
  2. Technology
  3. Social Sciences
  4. Reading
  5. Writing
  6. Culture & Communication
  7. Personal/Social/Service (the values and skills necessary to reach one’s full potential, and fostering the development of those around them)
  8. Career Development
  9. PE/Health (healthy interpersonal strategies applied in both rural and urban environments)
  10. Science

Topics important to Alaska Natives can easily be woven into most of the content areas. For language and cultural preservation, it’s crucial to identify Elders who are able to pass along the Suqcestun language and Alutiiq drumming and songs. Another example lies within the Alaskan state standards that include subsistence living (fishing, hunting, and using materials from the natural environment to create living environments) within the science standards.

The domain of Culture and Communication was specifically designed to provide formal and systematic ways to make connections with Native Alaskan cultures. Debbie Treece, Director of Special Education (and Bilingual Coordinator), explained, “The Alutiiq culture and the culture of any of our students from Native communities are fostered in our Culture and Communication standards. In addition, the Personal/Social/Service standards provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate these skills by participating in tribal activities, engaging in their tribal council, attending the Alaska Federation of Natives, or participating in the Native Youth Olympics.” Additionally, English language acquisition for all CSD students whose primary language is other than English is taught through Sheltered English strategies. English language development goals include acquiring and demonstrating proficiency to speak, listen, read, and write in English at a level that ensures clear communication between the student and English speakers. Through the attainment of the goals in each domain, academic success is expected to increase. Utilization of the WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards provides the framework for the classroom teacher in teaching the dimensions of social and academic language.

Chugach School District’s philosophy for academic success revolves upon the belief that students are most successful when academic learning takes place based upon the individual’s current knowledge level, and the cognitive demand for learning new information builds upon that knowledge base.  Through the CSD performance-based, standards-based system, the limited English proficient student is assessed to determine his or her current academic level of proficiency (appropriate testing accommodations per the ELL Tool 1 will be allowed for local and SBA assessments), and then specific strategies for successful academic learning are deployed. These strategies include direct instruction, application of skills, simulation of the use of those skills, and real life experience. CSD refers to this as the Balanced Instructional Model.  Specific strategies for teaching the content areas of mathematics and reading include:

  • Classwide Peer Tutoring (pair learning approach in which students take turns as teacher and learner)
  • Cooperative learning combined with metacognitive instruction
  • Mastery learning that accommodates student diversity
  • Small group tutoring using Direct Instruction
  • Peer-Assisted Learning (students work in pairs to learn structured sequence of literacy skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, sound blending, passage reading, story telling)
  • Labeling of objects throughout classroom and school in home language and English
  • Creation of personal dictionaries that can be illustrated and annotated by each student

Additional strategies for academic success include the use of Sheltered English supports, ESL web-based individualized learning programs, and 1st language – English language dictionaries that are age appropriate.

3. Flexibility and Creativity is Unleashed With Structures Based on Standards Rather Than Course

A constant topic raised in my conversations with teachers is how a performance-based system generates tremendous opportunities for teachers to design and co-design with students to ensure that instructional experiences are meaningful. (See Chugach Teachers Talk About Teaching for more on this topic)

Doug Penn
Doug Penn

Doug Penn, District Principal, explained, “There are some formal ways that we embed Native education into the units, such as using Native literature. However, we are also opportunistic based on the season, what’s going on in the villages, and what is happening with the students. In a performance-based system, we focus on units – not daily lessons – and we rarely use textbooks. This gives us a chance to be more flexible to create interdisciplinary projects that draw on the assets of the villages and the incredible natural world all around us.” Additionally, Cultural Heritage Week is held annually in May to teach cultural knowledge to students from throughout the Chugach Region. Teacher Nichole Palmer  expanded on this with, “We don’t dissect frogs in science. We are going to look at the body systems of a fish that students know about and use in their lives in the village.”

Jed Palmer, head teacher at Tatitlek Community School, cautioned, “We don’t want to teach about the culture, we teach through it. The culture is all around us in the school because we are embedded in our communities. Our community members were part of writing the Culture and Communication standards. We utilize the community and the place as much as possible. Community members invited students to build the smokehouse and can fish. We partner with different organizations, such as dance groups, around cultural heritage. All of these are opportunities for students to build their personal skills, explore their identity, think about their futures, and apply academic skills.”

4. Preparing Students for Life

My conversations in New Mexico have led me to believe that Native American communities in general are much more interested to talk about how to prepare students for life and for lifelong learning rather than the more narrow college and career readiness framing dominating our national policy conversations.

Before CSD transformed their system in 1994, college success and completion rates were unknown. Now, the majority of students take college placement exams, workforce readiness tests, and apply to a variety of postsecondary options. However, many students want to enter the labor market to earn some money first. There are also some students who want to maintain a traditional Native life, so CSD has to take into account what students need to know to be successful in subsistence living in their villages, in addition to college readiness.

Penn used a powerful metaphor to describe the role of the district, “We have to be a slingshot. There is a momentum that builds to propel students forward beyond their graduating high school. They need to have a wide array of opportunities. I don’t know if we have to help them find their specific direction, as it is going to change a lot in their late teens and early twenties. It’s a rarity for teens to know exactly what they want to do and successfully pursue it. We need to help them have the capacity to take advantage of changing interests.”

CSD also takes into consideration the idea that students are likely to be navigating both rural and urban areas in their lives. The Voyage to Excellence (VTE) program, a variable-term residential school, plays a catalytic role in teen development. (Note: The word variable is used intentionally to separate it from the history of boarding schools that undermined Alaska Native and Native American communities, native language, and cultures). The VTE school is designed to provide opportunities for students to apply skills, build up their “city-skills,” strengthen leadership skills, develop a positive understanding of themselves within their communities and different environments, enhance career exploration, develop marketable skills, and build independent living skills.

Anna Gregorieff

Middle schoolers come for a four-day First Trek where they meet students from all over the state and other Native communities. Patrick Hecker, a staff member at VTE explained, “There are often students from a variety of Alaska Native communities speaking one of the twenty Alaska Native languages, which creates opportunities for rich conversations about identity, culture, and language.”

A series of high school Phases run from six to thirty days on a full range of topics and opportunities. As students near graduation, the Phases intensify and lengthen so students can do internships, gain skill certificates, and get drivers’ licenses.

As in other competency-based schools, student ownership is a constant theme, along with helping students develop the skills needed to be successful. CSD focuses on both content and process skills, so students learn to be intentional about how they approach problems. Students build up their independent learning skills as well as explore specific interests or all-encompassing passions through Individual  Learning Plans.

– – –

Anna Gregorieff, the pre-school aide at TCS and a resident of Tatitlek, captured the essence of CSD’s design. “It all starts with trust. We’ve built trust between the community and the schools. In school, students trust each other and help when things are difficult. There is always a new opportunity to learn here. And we share an understanding of what we want our kids to be able to do. Sometimes, it takes kids a bit to see what is possible. But once they do, they get so excited you can’t stop them.”