Jones started her freshman year at East High School feeling overwhelmed,
as many freshman do.
But for Jones, it
was intensified. She had just moved to Anchorage from Kotzebue,
the regional hub community of Northwest Alaska with about 3,000
people, mostly Inupiat. Her new school in Anchorage seemed huge,
she said, with about 2,000 students and mazes of crowded hallways.
"When I moved
here, I was like, 'Whoa,' " said Jones, now a 17-year-old,
soon-to-be senior. "It was really different, especially coming
from a village. You're used to being with other people like yourself."
By that, Jones means
other Alaska Natives -- people who share her culture, her heritage,
her identity, her experiences. Now she has found a way to connect
to all that through school, by way of the Partners for Success program
developed by Cook Inlet Tribal Council and the Anchorage School
It started as a
pilot program three years ago. Today, funded by federal grants,
it has grown to four Anchorage high schools and four middle schools.
More than 650 Alaska Native and American Indian students in the
district took one or more classes through it this past school year.
Its summer school program at West High School, which wrapped up
earlier this month, drew about 100 teenagers from the district.
The unique program
aims to help students pass the exit exam, a three-part test in reading,
writing and math that is required for a diploma. Tribal Council
staffers and schools Superintendent Carol Comeau say the program
is working, and they credit a passionate staff, small classes and
a curriculum rich with Alaska culture and history.
that when you have appropriate staffing and you make an aggressive
outreach to families -- to parents, to elders, to kids -- and you
really focus on reading, writing and math, achievement improves,"
Comeau said. "They've blended the strong academics with the
cultural values. It's obvious to me that it is paying off, because
student attendance has improved, achievement certainly has improved."
The exit exam has
proved a barrier for many Native students. On average, they fail
the test at a disproportionately higher rate than white students.
This year, 627 high school seniors statewide retook the reading
portion of the exam, and of the 428 who failed, about 54 percent
of them were Native. About 43 percent of the 178 seniors who fell
short on the writing part were Native. And of 554 seniors who failed
the math section, roughly 42 percent were Native.
of seniors retesting in reading were Native students, as were 37
percent of seniors retesting in writing and 36 percent of seniors
retesting on the math portion.
students are emphatically beating the statewide trend. An estimated
95 percent of Native 12th-graders this year passed the exit exam.
"This is a
program we are building that is really working," said Gloria
O'Neill, president and chief executive officer of Cook Inlet Tribal.
"We know we're on the right track. I truly believe, as an Alaska
Native, that our people will really achieve parity when we have
great opportunities within education."
Students in the
program take courses heavy on discussion. Work is often self-paced,
and students use hands-on methods and real-life applications.
"We don't have
students sitting in neat little rows," said Amy Lloyd, director
of K-12 educational services for Cook Inlet Tribal. "Culture
is the backbone of Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Our goal is for our
students to graduate with real choices."
Cook Inlet Tribal
has people on staff whose sole job is to get families involved and
keep them in the loop. Parents and guardians receive frequent updates
on their children's progress and are told if the student isn't doing
Families are also
invited to potlucks and family nights, which have so far proved
popular. At the first such event, Lloyd said, council staffers were
hoping for a least a couple dozen people to show up. They got 350
Teachers and other
staff members with the program -- about half of them are Native
-- will call parents and track a student down if the child is late
or skips class. On the days that students took the exit exam, the
staff members waited at their schools' front doors to welcome their
are very concerned," Jones said. "Even if you're tardy,
they call your parents. They called my house at like 8:30 a.m. once.
I was like: 'I'm coming! I just woke up!' They really want our students
Jones, who will
be a senior at East High in fall, hadn't thought much about life
after high school when she came to Anchorage. She met with program
counselors, who told her about scholarships.
In Kotzebue, she
said, "you don't have anything to hope for. You think you'll
just be stuck there your whole life. I didn't think I was going
to go to college."
Now Jones plans
on going to college and becoming an Air Force pilot and airplane
mechanic. She said her education is on track and summer school is
helping maintain that.
reading course helped her catch up, while her U.S. history class
helped her get ahead, she said.
Classes are small,
Jones said. "And they let you go at your own pace. You can
just take your time. You're not forced into anything."
helps also that the topics are actually things people here care
about, Jones said.
"Like in U.S.
history, we're talking about the pipeline and how it's affected
the economy," she said. "They have taught us about things
that are relevant, that could actually affect us."
Making some of the
classes relevant is unnecessary because they already are. Course
offerings include Native art, Yup'ik language and literature of
But the majority
are core courses, from writing to advanced composition to algebra.
Alice Metz, a math teacher with the program, said blending culture
and history into the curriculum to make it more relevant to students
In math, when teaching
positives and negatives, she uses tides as an example. For more
complicated equations, Metz may ask her students to figure out how
much gas and food they'll need for a hunting trip, depending on
what route they take.
In summer school,
Metz uses problems like these to work on students' weakest areas
and help prepare them for the coming school year, she said.
"Most of the
students have been telling me that they're learning more through
the summer school program than in the whole school year," said
Metz, originally from the Yup'ik village of Tununak on Nelson Island
on the Bering Sea coast.
"We care about
our students, and we're devoted to our students," Metz said.
"They're open to me too."
18, took Metz's morning class this summer. Ask Ivanoff how he feels
about math, and he first sighs.
"I can do all
the work in my head," Ivanoff said. "But I can't show
it. I'm here to try to learn how to show how I get from point A
It's easier to figure
this out in the summer program, he said. There's plenty of one-on-one
time with teachers.
have a room full of 30 students and all of them are saying, 'I need
some help,' " Ivanoff said.
He has passed all
parts of the exit exam but needs better math grades to graduate.
He's fixed on getting a diploma and getting into the Navy.
"I need to
finish my credits. No GED for me. I want a diploma."