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The persistence of the Native American achievement gap has stumped educators for decades. Even as black and Hispanic students have made gains in recent years, test scores, high school graduation rates and the college-going rates have stagnated for Native students. On St. Lawrence Island in Alaska, the challenges are especially stark. Many Yupik Eskimo families who live there depend on whaling and berry-picking to survive, and college can seem irrelevant. Using a pot of $2 million in federal funds, the St. Lawrence schools have launched a set of reforms outlined by the Obama administration, which include an extended school day and new teacher evaluations based partly student standardized test scores.

teachers in Alaska
Kristina Sieff (Photo by Sarah Garland)

A group of teachers at the Hogarth Kingeekuk Sr. Memorial School in Savoonga, one of two villages on the island, spoke to The Hechinger Report about what they think works to improve outcomes for Native children. Scott Herrmann is in his sixth year teaching middle school math at the school. Kristina Sieff is in her fifth year teaching high school science. And Gaetano Brancaleone has taught elementary reading for two years.

Why did you come here?

Kristina Sieff: I wanted to come where they still practiced traditional whaling because I’m a marine biologist at heart.

Scott Herrmann: I worked in high-tech. I wanted to get out of the rat race. I wanted to go to a small Alaska town, and I got it. And I like working with kids.

Gaetano Brancaleone: I had options to be in some Southern states and options to come to Alaska. So it was a no brainer.

What do you think should be done about the achievement gap?

teachers in Alaska
Scott Herrmann (Photo by Sarah Garland)

Herrmann: The best thing that I’ve seen happen happened this year, and that was our teacher retention. This is my sixth year and I can’t tell you how many teachers have gone through the place. It’s really hard for a kid to love someone who is not going to be there next year. When you see the teachers returning, the kids feel a lot better about themselves. I feel the kids are doing a lot better this year because of the returning teachers.

Sieff: One of the first questions they ask you is, “Are you coming back?” You’ve only been here a few days and they want to know if you’re coming back next year.

Herrmann: Even at Christmas they asked, “Can I get your email?” And I said, “I’ll be back in two weeks.” They said, “Yeah.”

Sieff: Like they didn’t believe him.

Herrmann: We’ve had several teachers not make it through the year. We’ve had teachers get off the plane and get back on.

Sieff: The year I started, there was a whole group of new teachers: 12. That was the big year. Now it’s just me and [one other teacher].

Herrmann: Of my group [which arrived the year before] I’m the only one. Isn’t that something? And the kids feel it’s their fault.

Brancaleone: I’m quoting this from someone, but the kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. It’s only my second year coming back and I had people coming up to me who I didn’t even know with huge smiles on their faces saying, “Welcome home! I’m so glad you’re here.” And I had kids who gave me the cold shoulder last year. Now when they see you actually do come back they’re more interested in what you have to say.

What do you think about these reforms? How much do you think the grant is making a difference?

Sieff: Our students have to buy into it. At the younger age it’s a lot easier to get them to go along with all this. But as they get older, it’s harder for us to say, “Let’s do this program, we need to do it, it’s going to help you.” They’re skeptical. We’re always changing.

Herrmann: And it’s a lot of work on my part. I work seven days a week. All of us do. If you had been here on Sunday you would have seen the entire staff here.

Brancaleone: I haven’t slept here on a school night yet this year!

Sieff: Ask him how many times he slept here last year.

Brancaleone: I was probably here four months straight. It’s not that far to get home, it’s just easier.

Herrmann: Especially when the weather sets in. I have a mattress, sleeping bag, and an extra pair of clothes in my classroom. I get going on stuff and I’m just too tired to walk home.

How would you define success for these kids?

Sieff: I don’t think just because they pass a test, it’s success.

teachers in Alaska
Gaetano Brancaleone (Photo by Sarah Garland)

Brancaleone: That’s a hard question to answer on a whole, and I think of all these individual students in my head. I have different criteria for different ones. I can think of students who I know what they were at the beginning of last year and I saw what they grew into at the end of last year, and I don’t even think of the academic stuff. I think of how they’ve grown as a person.

Herrmann: I’d like to see the kids maintain their culture, and at the same time survive in a 21st century world.

How do you combine those two things? Is that an inherent tension?

Herrmann: I try to make everything relevant to here. I bring up fishing, whaling, boating and I try to bring it into the math problems.

Sieff: Any time you can go out there and join into the activities, and they see you, it helps them too.

Brancaleone: I have a scripted program that I have to read from. And I veer from it every once and a while. We had to go over the months of the year, and I have a Yupik aide in my classroom, so I had her go over the names in Yupik. I try to use words, and they laugh at me when I can’t pronounce them.

Herrmann: If they want to speak to each other in Yupik, I envy them and I honor them for it.

Sieff: Us teachers, we don’t really have time to add it in. We have all this stuff, like RTI [Response to Intervention], and where do we put it? That’s the thing, because a lot of these kids haven’t passed the testing, we can’t offer them all these cool things that would probably get them to pass it. Because of this SIG grant—and I think it’s a good thing—but we can’t offer other courses that would actually make them interested in coming to school everyday.

Is college the right goal, and how do you make that happen for more students here?

Herrmann: I always say to the kids when we talk about college, “Someone’s going to come along with this contract and you’re not going to understand it and they’re going to steal your land. You’ve got to do it for survival of the Yupik people.”

Sieff: I talk to them and explain you’re going to be the people who are running the city, and all these organizations and meetings. Do they want it to be successful?

Herrmann: And I emphasize to the kids that finishing school does not mean leaving Savoonga.

They get on themselves about how they’re not smart, and I have to point out to them that stupid people can’t survive in the Arctic. You have to know what you’re doing to live here. You have to be smart to go out on that sea. These kids are brilliant, and they don’t realize their brilliance.

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  1. What an interesting article! Balancing the Yupik culture with 21st century skills must be a challenge. I hope expanded learning time through SIG funding will make the challenge even slightly more manageable.

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