The issue of high teacher turnover in rural Alaska is a long standing one. This is a controversial proposal to resolve the problem. ...Paul Ongtooguk

Education plan taps Bush aides, Controversial idea aims to cut teacher turnover

Anchorage Daily News, Monday, December 20, 1999

By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA, Daily News reporter

Some educators hope to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to improving schools in Bush Alaska - rapid turnover of teachers - by making it easier for mostly Native teacher aides to become teachers, perhaps without earning college degrees.

But the idea, presented at the Alaska Board of Education recently, is generating controversy over whether it would create a double standard.

Many Bush teachers come from Outside and stay for only a short time. Rural districts estimate a quarter to a third of their teachers quit every year. The disruption prevents schools from offering consistent classroom programs long enough to make them work.

Most village residents are Native, but few become teachers.

Of nearly 1,400 teachers hired in Alaska last year, only 5 percent, 71, were Alaska Natives, according to a report by the Alaska Teacher Placement Office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

While Bush teachers stay mostly in a village for two to four years, the aides live there and tend to work in the same schools for 10 or 20 years.

Many aides attempt but don't complete the established college programs to become teachers, said Robert Gottstein, chairman of the Alaska Board of Education. University and state officials don't know why.

Gottstein initiated a state study to find the answer.

Longtime teacher aides often are more qualified than an Outside teacher who recently graduated from college and landed in a village, Gottstein said in an interview last week.

"Kids aren't getting the best of what's available in their own communities," he said.

The board heard public testimony and then voted to ask the Department of Education to propose by March a way to make it happen.

John Cyr, president of the statewide teachers union, NEA-Alaska, is among the critics. It would be a disservice to set up a system in which some teachers don't have to meet the same standards as others, he said.

"That's wrong. It cheats children, and we cannot do that," he told the board.

Cyr's union represents teacher aides and teachers. The state should look for other ways to retain teachers: better training to meet the challenges of teaching in a village school, better living conditions and higher pay, he said.

But easing the requirements is supported by two rural superintendents, tribal and school advisory board members from different parts of Alaska, and some Native parents.

Leland Dishman, North Slope Borough Schools superintendent, said he'd be happy to hand talented, long-term aides teaching certificates. For example, they might be given an opportunity to take the exams in writing, reading and math that Alaska teachers take to get certified.

"One of the best reading teachers I know of" is an aide, Dishman said.

Charles Mason, chief executive officer of the Northwest Arctic School District in Kotzebue, agrees. Until recently, his district had 13 reading and language arts programs in use, he said. "It changed as teachers came and administrators came and went."

Some new teachers aren't even passing all parts of the certification exam, and the district is having to get waivers from the state to allow them to continue teaching, he said.

Sarah Scanlan of Anchorage, whose mother used to be a teacher aide in Kotzebue, suggested rural aides be certified through competency tests in the field. "This is not a dumbing down of the teaching profession," she said. "It is standards based."

Teacher aides are widely used throughout the Bush, sometimes to lower the ratio of children to adults in a class and frequently to teach the language and culture of a region.

Districts often pay for aides to take college classes toward certification, but many aides take one to three classes a year and never reach the target.

Katie Curtis, 47, has accumulated 60 credits over the past decade or longer while working as an aide at Nelson Island School in Toksook Bay on the Bering Sea. She thinks she's about halfway there.

Curtis went to college as a teenager but had a baby and found it too difficult to care for the baby and take classes at the same time. She dropped out.

Ever since, she's been working and raising a family, she said in an interview.

"For some younger people, it might be easier for them to go away from here if they have their spouse's support," Curtis said. "I couldn't do that."

Curtis teaches Yupik language and culture to elementary school children, math to fifth- and sixth-graders, and sometimes art classes.

Toksook Bay is in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which long ago established a step between teacher aides and certified teachers, called associate teachers. Most associates teach in villages where all subjects in kindergarten through third grade are taught in the Native language, Yupik.

Legally, the associate teachers are supervised by a regular teacher, but they are in fact in charge of classes. They do not have certificates but are paid more than aides. Curtis works part time as an associate teacher and part time as an aide.

Bev Williams, Lower Kuskokwim curriculum director in Bethel, said most of the associates "have a heck of a lot more experience" than the certified teachers who supervise them.

"In terms of expertise and knowledge of kids, many of them are far more proficient than the new babies (teachers) right out of college," she said.

But there is controversy within her district about earning a certificate without having to go through college, she said. Many Alaska Natives have earned certificates the usual way, with education degrees from universities, and some of them question whether it would be fair to give others who don't make it through college the same certificate, Williams said.

Education Commissioner Rick Cross said he first wants to investigate why so many teacher aides studied for years but stopped short of completing the degree programs at the University of Alaska or at Alaska Pacific University.

"An intense effort has to go into finding these people and determining what got them off track, and getting them on track again."

Some of the problem has to be the system, he said, not just the fact that people feel they need to stay in the villages and raise families. "I'm unwilling to accept blaming it all on them," he said. "Some of it's got to be us."

His department will explore other solutions, but he's not ready to identify them, he said.

* Reporter Rosemary Shinohara can be reached at

Copyright © 1999 The Anchorage Daily News

Anchorage Daily News articles used with permission of the publisher, for educational purposes only.

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