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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 1, 2004 - Issue 112


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Group Plans Native-focused Charter School

by Marmian L. Grimes Staff Writer Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

To Sharon McConnell Gillis, the numbers say a lot.

Of about 190 Native freshmen who started high school in 2000, she said, fewer than than 80 of those entered 12th grade four years later.

"These are really staggering statistics," said Gillis, executive director for the Doyon Foundation.

She, along with a committee of local Native and education leaders, hope the Effie Kokrine Charter School will help change those numbers. The group hopes to bring a proposal for the 150-student secondary charter school to the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District school board this summer. If approved, it would be the third public charter school in the district.

"We know that what is currently being done is not working for our Native students," Gillis said.

Gillis said the school is slated to open in the fall of 2005, assuming it is approved by the school district and the state school board. When it first opens, it will serve Native and non-Native students in seventh through ninth grades. She said the school's organizing committee hopes to add grades yearly until eventually the school allows students to attend through grade 14.

A defining characteristic of the school, as it's proposed, is its curriculum. Organizers plan to teach all of the academic subjects using Native culture and practices. Some examples: A science unit on weather would include both traditional and modern forecasting methods. Government and history lessons might include an emphasis on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and tribal, state and federal laws that affect Native people. The committee also hopes to hire as many Native teachers as possible, bring elders into the classroom on a regular basis and require parent involvement in the school.

"We envision school starting off in the fall with a spirit camp or a cultural camp," said Bob McGuire, director of the learning styles center project for the Association of Interior Native Educators, which will serve as the umbrella organization for the charter school. "A lot of the things in this curriculum are not just things you can talk about in the classroom. You have to get out and experience them as much as possible."

McGuire said the curriculum's emphasis on Native culture should make it more relevant to students.

"I think the basic effect is right from the beginning we will have students having pride and taking control and interest of their own education," he said.

Parents and students at an informational meeting last week had good things to say about the proposal.

Parents George and Tina Leavitt both said they liked the idea that their children could learn Native culture and language at school.

"I want my kids to grow up as whalers because I am a whaler," said George Leavitt, who is originally from Barrow.

Emily Souphanavong, a freshman at West Valley High School, liked the charter school's idea of having more Native teachers.

"There's not a lot of Native teachers (at my school). I don't like that," she said. "Sometimes they bring teachers in from the Lower 48 and they teach differently."

Mona Jones, the mother of four teenagers, said a smaller school appeals to her. Her children attended village schools and did well in that environment, she said, but found Fairbanks' larger schools overwhelming.

"All my kids have learned in a small environment and they excel in a small environment," she said.

School district administrators are also supportive of the plan.

"Our district test data has shown for several years that Alaska Native students are not performing at the capacity that we know they can and should," said Superintendent Ann Shortt.

Middle school is a difficult time for children, she said.

"I think this could be a very safe environment for students," Shortt said. "And I think learning with a focus on their culture could be a real strength."

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