“I want to thank you on behalf of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Mr. Poulson,” quips Grace Larsen, striking a pose for Daily Sitka Sentinel photographer James Poulson. District secretary Laurie Seehafer (l.) and school board president Jennifer McNichol break out smiles. Larsen went on to express her pride in school board member Dionne Brady-Howard. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Faculty and administrators rallied behind cultural programming in the Sitka School District, during the school board’s annual meeting (3-6-16) at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founder’s Hall this month.

As the school district addresses a spending gap of over $2-million, educators stressed that cultural programming was paying dividends for all students.

Downloadable audio.

The Sitka School Board will hold a live budget call-in from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 21, on Raven Radio.

Nancy Douglas oversees cultural programs for the Sitka School District. Five years ago she helped spearhead the creation of the Wooch.een Yei pre-school — a partnership with Tlingit and Haida Headstart housed at the district’s Baranof Elementary School.

The program was created to close the achievement gap between Native students and non-Natives, and address other socio-economic issues that might be holding some students back.

Douglas told the school board that there wasn’t yet any hard data analysis of the program. But soft data suggested that Wooch.een Yei was working.

“When it comes to data, we’re just now starting to gather that data. But when you look at the anecdotal results of kids and their comfort level going to school — the transition from Keet to Baranof, you can see that success. We have two Wooch.een friends sitting back there now who are at Baranof. And I think the socialization and the adjusting to going to elementary school — you can really see that.”

Former middle-school Science teacher Patty Dick has been informally observing at Wooch.een. She agreed that success in the preschool wasn’t something that translates to paper.

“I just wanted to share that there’s a tremendous difference in the abilities in the class — an extreme difference. And because of that I think it’s really difficult to put a lot of learning that happens on the data sheet.”

Dick attributed some of the success of the relatively recent Wooch.een Yei program, to the enduring efforts of the late Isabella Brady to push for cultural funding in the district over decades, in a program called SNEP — or the Sitka Native Education Program.

Isabella’s granddaughter, Dionne Brady-Howard, now sits on the Sitka School Board. She said that at a recent meeting of the Alaska Association of School Boards — or AASB — it was clear that thanks to Wooch.een Yei and SNEP, attitudes toward cultural programming were shifting.

“Culturally-responsive education being more than just having units and lessons that are brought in really deliberately, sort of as ‘Okay, this is our time to cover Native stuff.’ And I’m noticing that what we are working on as a district really is embedded, place-based education that feels like it’s really moving toward what AASB was recommending: Genuine incorporation of these different things into our curriculum… because it’s just becoming a part of what we do as a district.”

Several tribal elders spoke in support of continued funding for the programs. Grace Larsen was especially proud that a descendant of Isabella was serving on the board.

Alaska Native Sisterhood member Pat Alexander reminded the board that early education had some of the greatest impact on students.

“The time for them to learn is while they’re little people, because they’re sponges. They’re picking up everything. Once you’re past 60 you’re chipping concrete up here. So the best time to learn is when you’re very young. So as you deliberate on your budget, you must protect these programs, because it’s going to pay in a lot of different ways. People that are treated culturally are going to make better citizens. They’re going to be nicer students. They’re not going to be hurting others. They’re going to be respectful. They’re going to be enriched by our wonderful culture.”

The school board has not proposed any funding changes to cultural programming for next year, but next year’s budget is still very much a work in progress. The district funds one administrator, two teachers, and one support staff for the programs.