Message to School Board is "Culture in the Classroom"

At last week’s work session of the Board of Education, Nome’s Hattie Keller shared highlights from a recent discussion on decolonization in education. As part of an effort led by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, ICC for short, participants from around the region took part in a two-day workshop that focused on the impacts of colonization and the future of education for Inuit students.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is an international non-government organization that represents Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. ICC-Alaska, based in Anchorage, helps to connect Alaska’s indigenous peoples with other northern Inuit. Keller’s message to the school board was that Nome needs more cultural and language integration in the classroom. “We discussed Inuit education, and specifically how to incorporate more Inuit and Yup’ik culture in the education framework,” Keller said. “Our students shouldn’t have to feel that they’re having to leave their culture at the door to learn western education.” Keller offered ideas for ways in which Nome Public Schools could implement some of the ideas discussed in the workshop, several of which have been incorporated already.

Over the last few years, Nome has invited new teachers to a late-summer culture camp as a way of sharing with them the local culture. Also, the integration of culture in the classroom is now part of teacher evaluations, and the high school has recently started a Culture Club. But district staff and board members agree there is more work to do.

Nome Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Arnold recognizes the need for local teachers and has joined the efforts of the Growing our Own Teachers Program as a way to encourage Alaska Native students to earn degrees and return to their home communities as teachers and administrators. During her comments, Keller also lamented not growing up with a solid understanding of her people’s history. “We don’t know our history here; I had to go to college to learn our history and to learn about our people,” she said. Board president Barb Amarok, who also attended the discussions, spoke to colonization as it happens in education. “Textbooks are supposed to represent the family’s life, but those [stories] have been omitted,” Amarok said, “And the message is that the child’s family and identity isn’t important. It’s great to see that new texts are much more authentic and representative.” As part of her presentation to the school board, Keller also asked the board to consider their policies surrounding Inuit cultural values for Nome’s schools, including the need for students to understand how a lack of knowing one’s history contributes to the historical and generational trauma brought about by colonization. “This is a Native region and it will always be a Native region and we can’t forget that,” Keller said. “Western education and Inuit education should be equal.”

It happens that administrators and teachers at the Junior/Senior high are reviewing new Social Studies instructional programs that will bring them into compliance with the Alaska state standards. “We’ve identified some standards at the national level and are looking at what other districts in the state are using, knowing that we would take what we found and make it relevant to our region and our cultures,” said Nome-Beltz Principal Jon Berkeley.

 Social Studies teacher Kent Runion is also reviewing new materials, and he has seen some engaging, up-to-date programs. “They’re not perfect, but they’re a good framework to build from,” Runion said. When asked by board member Nancy Mendenhall how the Alaska history piece relates to the texts, both Berkeley and Runion agreed that they need to collect and adapt materials to create the course. “One of the things is to develop a course description and outline for what that course would look like,” Berkeley said. “We’ll look at some of the previous resources, say like ANSCA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] and Alaskool [a statewide resource for educators]. We have to build it, and the resources are out there.” Mendenhall, who has reviewed some of the prospective texts, added that she could see improvements in the new texts, in terms of Native American history, but that “it will take a lot of work to take that text book and make it relevant to Natives in Alaska.”

Also at last week’s work session, the board heard about a new program called Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Nome-Beltz School Counselor Kaley Slingsby shared plans for the implementation of a grant-funded program that will provide junior high students with the skills to identify their emotions, recognize their strengths and communicate effectively with others. The program is in collaboration with the Alaska Association of School Boards and aims to combine elements of community engagement and cultural relevancy in the schools. Slingsby described the components of the program, which include developing a leadership team, working with community entities, holding community conversations, and understanding what is important to families. “SEL is something we learn throughout our lives; we’re working on these [skills] constantly,” Slingsby said. “It’s an important thing to teach our students.”

Kawerak’s Head Start director Deb Trowbridge spoke to the board with concerns about losing the certified teaching positions in Head Start’s pre-kindergarten classrooms. Since 2012, the district has been able to fund two certified positions at Head Start and one at the Nome Preschool through specific Pre-K grant monies Initially, Governor Bill Walker had included the money in his budget but the legislature removed it, and so far they have not reinstated the funding. Although funding is often in limbo until the end of the legislative session, the outlook for the reinstatement of those funds seems grim. Trowbridge said she’s anxious about not being able to provide the certified teacher staffing. “Research says that when we spend money on the little ones we’re saving money in the future. We still want to look for opportunities for funding through NPS if that’s possible,” Trowbridge told the board. School Board President Barb Amarok agreed that the positions are important to preschoolers’ success and said that she has been exploring ways for the district to get funding. Trowbridge also mentioned that the Bering Strait School District has made the placement of certified teachers in their Head Start classrooms a priority and are able to provide them, to which Superintendent Arnold responded that the comparison with BSSD is difficult because they have a completely different funding stream and are able to utilize money that a municipality district like Nome is not able to do. Arnold also indicated that when it comes time for the city to assign a portion of their state funding to the district, they may prioritize the teaching positions and increase their contribution to fill that need. “Our main institution is children,” Arnold said, “and we want to do everything we can.”

The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112

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