A Little District That
In a village severely disadvantaged by sheer geography, it would be easy for the failure of a single student to go unnoticed. Located in the heart of Alaska, Galena is only accessible by boat (in the summer, when the river is ice-free) and by plane. But when one of the district's 13 seniors from its K-12 facility, Galena City School, didn't graduate this year, educators didn't just chalk it up to statistics.
Teachers are helping the student, who has met district requirements but still needs to reach some state ones, with her options: re-enroll and re-test, enroll in the district's post-secondary program, or find a college that will enroll her in remedial classes.
With 144 students this year, the school sounds easy enough to manage. But nothing is simple in Galena, a snug community of 150 homes. Students from dozens of villages across the state also live there, at the district's Project Education Residential School. Rounding out the district is the Interior Distance Education of Alaska program, started in 1997 and currently serving 3,000 students. In Galena, the goal is perfection, and it was set long before No Child Left Behind. Educators aim for 100 percent student success-on all assessments, in attendance, and in graduating with choices for the future.
A Dismal Backdrop
Hard-working teachers with genuine caring for students have traditionally been a district staple. Yet, the school system faced a slate of problems. For 1999-2000, the drop-out rate, just a few percent overall, was at nearly 56 percent for the residential school. Standardized test scores throughout the district were below the 10th percentile in math and struggling to keep up with state averages in reading and writing. And the high Native Alaskan population meant erratic attendance; parents often pulled children out of school for subsistence living activities, including hunting, fishing, gathering and preserving food for the winter.
Education was valued but considered a frill. Students weren't motivated and felt unable to meet the challenge of school. They also faced life challenges such as poverty, abuse and suicide.Working against this backdrop was cultural bias from state leaders. Principal Harry White of the residential school recalls the sting when one state legislator told him, Native Alaskan kids couldn't pass the state proficiency exam "because they weren't smart enough."
A Four-year Turnaround
Four years of hard work has meant all the difference in Galena. This year, 85 percent of residential students passed state and national benchmarks. Math and writing scores have increased fivefold. In 2002-2003, no one dropped out of the residential or city schools. Last year, the city school passed all No Child Left Behind criteria. Teachers say students are more respectful of each other and that individual goals are being expressed verbally and in essays.
What caused this dramatic turnaround? A whole-community effort that began in 1999 with an aggressive, comprehensive plan to empower children. The school board, city council and tribal council all vowed to do their parts.
That cooperation has lasted. For example, at a monthly "breakfast club" meeting, 25 to 50 community members discuss efforts to further the education of children. One indication of the commitment, says Superintendent Jim Smith: "We take turns paying the bill."
Also in 1999, the district streamlined and improved the curriculum and conducted a comprehensive needs assessment. They implemented three professional development programs: Kagan Workshops on cooperative learning, Pudewa Writing Workshops on writing across the curriculum, and the Performance Excellence for All Kids learning model, focusing on instruction and assessment strategies.
In 2000, when Galena brought in PEAK Director Spence Rogers, the transformation began in earnest. PEAK attempts to engage students in their own learning experiences and to support children, teachers and the whole learning environment.
This means a new take on professional development. "Most staff development is like the exercise syndrome. You follow ... the latest fad and just jump from little idea to little idea," Rogers says. PEAK incorporates a smorgasbord of learning strategies that teachers can be trained to use for specific classroom situations.
Building on the Basics
The family's role in creating healthy kids is integral. "Parents know how to give kids a sense of dignity and how to hold them accountable for their standards. Parents know that kids learn in different ways. Parents help kids learn to trust others," Rogers says.
Before learning can happen, Galena educators know they must create a physical and emotional environment that supports learning. It's akin to a safe home. The schools are not only hazard-free, but they have bright, colorful rooms. Teachers are trained not to belittle or shame students, even indirectly. Teamwork is stressed.
Academic success starts with defining what you're teaching, Smith points out. The learning outcomes drafted in the curriculum overhaul are posted, and teachers get related checklists. Students, parents and teachers know exactly what they need to achieve. Policies help spark cross-curricular learning. For example, when Rand Rosecrans teaches culinary arts at the residential school, students use math to multiply recipes for banquets, order food and manage portion sizes. With assessments, Smith says, "failure is not an option." The material is continually taught and tested in different ways until the majority of students have mastered the concepts. Then afterschool help and peer tutoring kicks in for those who need it. The concept of valued purpose has also halted the rush to drop-out. "If it has no value, we don't teach it," White says. It's not enough to say that a student must learn this or that in order to graduate or go to college. Teachers explain coursework so that students can relate. For example, mastering composition could mean being able to express your village's needs by writing to a congressperson or drafting a plan to protect hunting areas.
One Step at a Time
The PEAK philosophy and classroom strategies are now used across the district. "We work on one area at a time and improve on the previous areas," says Chris Reitan, the K-12 principal. The aim is to support teachers-not burn them out, White says.
Bi-weekly in-services include professional development, sharing of student work and assessments and problemsolving. All staff members attend, even the janitors and cooks.
One success story that Galena educators like to share: A runaway who had been expelled from three different school districts came to the residential school. At 6' 5", he'd never played basketball or any other sport. He graduated with a 3.6 GPA, became a school leader and is now in college on a basketball scholarship. It's a night-and-day kind of turnaround- much like the one his entire district has experienced.
Janie Franz is a freelance writer based in Grand Forks, N.D., who has covered rural education issues.