In 1966, the State of Alaska built regional boarding high schools in Nome, Bethel, and Kodiak for students of high school age in surrounding villages. Most communities in rural Alaska lacked high schools at the time, and those who wished to attain a high school education attended Bureau of Indian Affairs operated boarding schools at places such as Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, and Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma. The new regional boarding schools were built as an experiment in order to mitigate the failings of these crowded, more geographically distant schools for rural Alaska Native students.
In 1967, the state commissioned the Training Corporation of America (TCA) of Falls Church, Virginia, to carry out a study advising on the implications for expanding the regional boarding high school program.
Establishing six additional regional boarding high schools would be ideal, TCA recommended, because residential school life would acculturate and “adjust” Alaska Native students for an “urban technological society,” thus favorably accelerating “the breakdown of old village patterns, patterns which may retard the development of rural folk into a disciplined and reliable workforce.”
The failure of these schools to educate Alaska Native students quickly became evident. A 1969 investigation of the William E. Beltz School in Nome by the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, found high rates of teacher turnover, apathetic students below grade level, and out of state teachers unfit to teach in a cross-cultural setting. The Commission saw cultural assimilation for Beltz students as an inevitable feature of their boarding school experience: “Faculty and staff must make a real effort not only to understand the Eskimo culture and the difficulties which the students face as they lose contact with it, but they must also devise new techniques and programs to make the transition [to Western society] easier.”
In a 1973 study of Alaska’s regional boarding high school program, Judith Kleinfeld and Joseph Bloom with the UAA Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research, recommended abandoning it. “The high drop-out rate and the high incidence of drinking, violence, and suicide attempts that have occurred in these large high schools away from home have caused tremendous outcry and have forced a re-evaluation of the direction of rural secondary education,” Kleinfeld and Bloom wrote.
Three years later, the Tobeluk v. Lind settlement (better known as the “Molly Hootch” case) established the State of Alaska’s legal responsibility for the provision of local high schools in 126 settlement communities, paving the way for local control over education.
Over the course of the next decade, the state spent millions constructing local high schools, premised on the Alaska Supreme Court’s ruling that a system accommodating the local high school educational needs of urban students while requiring village students to leave their communities to attain a high school education was racially discriminatory and a patent violation of Alaska Natives’ civil liberties.
Alaska Native communities that formed regional governments could – at least in theory – influence schooling through locally elected school boards.
But history, unfortunately, tends to repeat itself, and thirty-six years after Tobeluk, some Alaskans are again advocating for the reestablishment of regional boarding high schools as a policy solution to continued educational inequity in rural Alaska. These advocates suspect that a state operated network of regional boarding high schools would equalize learning opportunities for rural students and produce more high school and college graduates qualified to address local needs. Boarding schools would accomplish this, supporters contend, by concentrating human and economic resources in fewer locations, thereby reducing costs, high rates of teacher turnover, and offering more advanced coursework.
Many of these arguments are made in a March 2012 report authored by Jerry Covey, a former rural Alaska superintendent turned education consultant.
Boarding high schools would help reduce turnover (statewide, 22% of teachers left their positions in 2007), proponents believe, because rural Alaska’s imported teaching force is presumably more partial to living in larger communities.
Yet advocates for the return of regional boarding high schools are misguided. Establishing such a network of regional boarding high schools throughout the state is a shortsighted education policy solution for a number of reasons, not least of which is cost. According to Lexi Hill at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, the per pupil cost of boarding and educating students at Mt. Edgecumbe High School and the Galena Interior Learning Academy is roughly $20,000 each year per student, nearly $5,000 more than statewide per pupil expenditures. “Running a quality boarding program is expensive, even when the students want to be there; costs go up when some students would rather not be there,” Hill said.
Regional boarding high schools should not be considered as a realistic solution to the persistent shortcomings of rural schooling before more imaginative, community-based solutions are seriously considered.
The boarding school theory of change
One of many problems with the proposed boarding school “solution” is its underlying theory of change. This theory assumes that replicating urban learning opportunities in rural Alaska is a form of fairness that will lead to equality. Such an urban, Eurocentric approach has at its center the belief that what is best for the non-Native, urban population is best for everyone, and assumes that all societies conceive of education and define “success” in the same way. This assumption ignores that Alaska Native communities have their own conceptions of “success” and ideas about how success should be achieved through education.
The colonial models of education that were imposed upon Alaska Native communities in the past sought to place Indigenous peoples on “equal footing” with Western society, which meant stripping Indigenous children of their identities. By using schooling to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Western society, Church, federal, and state education models were generously bestowing the “equal opportunity” to become English speaking, urban Americans upon peoples considered sub-human and backward.
Instead of settling for “equality,” which implies sameness and cultural assimilation, school district and state policy makers should instead strive for education models that promote equity. Equity occurs when societies are economically and politically empowered to self-determine their own futures, rather than having another society’s values and ideas about success imposed upon them.
Finally, this urban-centric theory of change ignores the fact that urban Alaska Native students who already have access to the academic opportunities associated with urban schooling fair little better than their rural peers. The high school graduation rate for Native students in the Anchorage School District has not climbed above 51 percent in the last two academic school years, begging the question: how can rural boarding high schools striving for programmatic parity with failing urban ones expect to produce positive outcomes for Alaska Native students?
The power politics of schooling
As the failures of past boarding school experiments suggest, Indigenous students do not fare well when given no alternative but to leave their families and communities in pursuit of a high school education. Because existing boarding high schools such as Mt. Edgecumbe and the Galena Interior Learning Academy are premised on choice, they tell us little about the potential success of a statewide network of regional boarding high schools. These schools are selective about who they admit, and students and their families elect to apply for admission in competition with other students. These students and their families thus have the power of choice, whereas no such choice would exist if boarding schools became compulsory.
Given the legacy of schooling as a tool used to colonize and assimilate Indigenous peoples, taking away parents’ ability to choose what is best for their children yet again is unlikely to result in higher levels of educational attainment for students.
The little qualitative research data that do exist suggest that factors more complicated than apathetic parents and under-resourced schools contribute to education challenges. These factors include the power politics within schools and between schools, parents, and communities.
Writing in 1969 about the affects of schooling on Kotzebue youth, social scientist Arthur E. Hippler observes: “The education thus far provided native students…has produced uncertain, anxiety-ridden and unhappy young people, paying a terrible price for what little they have “achieved.”” Thirty-one years later, professor of public health Lisa Wexler makes similar observations in her 2005 dissertation about Iñupiat youth suicide, noting that “schools carry with them a dark history of language stealing, community and family subjugation, and cultural repression, and this leaves many parents ambivalent about their children spending time there.”
Self-determination a solution
As Alaska Native peoples, we have successfully educated our children for millennia, transferring the skills and knowledge needed to flourish in our respective societies.
Students, parents, and community members remain capable of determining for themselves what is needed to bridge the opportunity gaps that exist between urban and rural Alaska, and should be empowered to do so.
From Hawaii to New Zealand to Greenland, the most promising schooling models for Indigenous students suggest that local control and Indigenous self-determination is key to improving school outcomes. The majority Iñupiat North Slope Borough School District is a rare example of an Alaskan public school district that recognizes the importance of earning community trust and developing partnerships in the process of improving student outcomes.
A growing education research literature confirms what the North Slope leadership and many others intuitively know: that students succeed when parents and communities trust the schools serving them, and when teachers and administrators are unified in their work toward a common objective.
Beginning in 2006, the NSBSD visited each of the district’s eight communities and asked students, parents and community members about their expectations for schooling, and is working to meet those expectations. Under the leadership of Iñupiaq Education Department Director Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, and guided by a grassroots coalition of ten education stakeholders called Iḷiññaġnikun Apqusiuqtit (“people who break trail for learning”), these community consultations informed the development of the Iñupiaq Learning Framework (ILF) adopted by the North Slope’s Board of Education in October 2010.
The ILF establishes the expectations, guidelines, and education philosophy of an Iñupiat education system, and is the foundation upon which professional development and curricular and pedagogical content is being re-developed. “Five years ago the North Slope Borough School District finally decided that it was time to go to the people,” Harcharek stated in testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May 2011. “It was time to forgo the abysmal philosophical underpinnings of the district to impose a system created in white urban America for white urban children on Iñupiaq children because it was failing.”
The ILF is an empowering foundational document, stating: “as a people we have a strength and determination to effectuate change in our schools to make the education system meaningful and culturally responsive resulting in greater academic success for our students.” Harcharek believes that in the future, district reforms will cultivate a new generation of Iñupiat educators more capable of responding to local needs.
Schooling models such as regional boarding high schools have been imposed upon Alaska Native societies, and have in the process marginalized communities from decision-making about the education of their children. Reiterations of this and other schooling models that are fundamentally disempowering to rural students, parents, and communities will continue to fail and should not be seriously considered. Instead, more imaginative solutions are needed that are premised upon community self-determination and equity. The North Slope Borough School District offers a promising blueprint for how community consultations can inform policy changes within a public school district, and in the process ensure that students, parents, and community members own these changes.
More innovative and imaginative community or region-based solutions may be expensive to finance in the short-term, but the potential for long-term success is worth it. We now have multi-billion dollar Alaska Native corporations with social and cultural responsibilities, and these corporations can help ensure that state funding streams do not limit possibilities. Few school districts or statewide policy makers have been willing to work with communities to achieve Alaska Native visions for schooling, but this is where viable solutions must come from. We cannot afford to continue financing different iterations of the same colonial schooling models that have failed us for the last century. Our ancestors, children and grandchildren deserve much better.