While test scores for Sitka’s students are generally better than the statewide average, one disturbing trend has continued: Alaska Native students in the Sitka schools are consistently testing lower than non-Natives.
How to effectively respond was the subject of intense discussion, when the Sitka School Board convened at the ANB Founders Hall on Wednesday (3-1-23).
For years, it was called the “achievement gap.” This ongoing disparity between Alaska Native students and other racial cohorts in schools. But the problem has continued so long that educators have recognized that it’s not about ability, it’s about opportunity.
Sitka School Board president Blossom Teal-Olsen is Iñupiaq, raised in Fairbanks. She explained what a lack of opportunity meant during her student years.
“I was asked to go into gifted and talented classes,” said Teal-Olsen, “but they only were after school, and you needed a ride home. And that was a big barrier for many of the students who should have been in gifted and talented classrooms. A lot of our parents were not able to come and pick us up after school. There were no buses to bring us home, there were not supports to allow us that chance.”
The discussion of the Opportunity Gap came during the board’s annual public hearing on Impact Aid, a federal program for schools serving children on “Indian Lands.” Jule LeBlanc, the cultural director for Sitka Schools, and Chookán
Lakrisha Brady, director of the Sitka Native Education Program – SNEP – used the results of recent standardized testing (Alaska MAP and AKSTAR) to illustrate the persistence of the Opportunity Gap.
Student board member Felix Myers challenged the testing data, suggesting that all kids – regardless of ethnicity – had little incentive “to give their best effort” on standardized tests.
LeBlanc responded that, even factoring in variables like student effort, the data were revealing.
“I think what’s so telling to me, the question I am asking myself,’ LeBlanc asked, “is why Alaska Native and American Indian students continue consistently performing lower, even if everybody is showing up is not doing their best? Why are we seeing – across every single data point – that Alaska Native and American Indian students are always lower?”
Board member Tristan Guevin has worked in the Education Department of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska for ten of the last twelve years. He saw a web of interrelated problems and barriers contributing to the gap. All of them, he said, “have been going on for a long time.”
“Native students are less likely to be in gifted and talented or AP classes, less likely to have opportunities for dual enrollment, CTE (Career and Technical Education) concentrators,” Guevin said. He continued, “more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, and less likely to go on to post-secondary education. So it’s not just achievement, it’s those opportunities.”
Guevin drilled further into the problem. He thinks it’s systemic, and not the fault of students or teachers. He wanted to see transformational change.
“These aren’t student ability gaps,” he said. “These are gaps in the district’s being able to serve those students in the best way possible. And so I want that to be very clear, that this is on us to improve and on us as a community and a state.”
Part of that change, Guevin believes, is a renewed emphasis on cultural education, like SNEP – the Sitka Native Education Program.
“When you look at the evidence, Native students who have an opportunity to learn their heritage language, and their culture, they end up performing better than their peers and math, English, Language Arts – everything,” he said. “It’s not just culture, right? It’s about identity, it’s about knowing yourself about how you fit, it’s about that confidence that translates into better test scores and better outcomes. So again, we need to support the cultural program, we need to ensure it has all the resources that it needs to do its job effectively, and close these gaps.”
Board member Melonie Boord shared that view. She didn’t think that the board should acknowledge the problem, and then step away. She wanted the board to step in.
“This isn’t for SNEP just to solve by themselves,” Boord said. “There’s something going on in our system that is not allowing our Native children to reach their potential. And it’s a community issue and a school district issue. System processes need to change, and this cannot be just on Lakrisha and Jule and their staff. And so I’m up for the task of trying to find out how we can give our Native students the love, support, the connection, and meeting their basic needs, so that they don’t have those learning gaps. That there’s not that disproportionality. It’s just unacceptable.”
The Sitka School Board’s federal Impact Aid hearing concluded without any members of the public stepping forward to comment. One actionable idea emerged from the hearing, however: Possibly expanding the alternative education program at Pacific High as far down as sixth grade, since Native Alaskan students had proven to be very receptive to the model.
Ventures Pay Raise
Workers in Sitka’s afterschool childcare program will see a boost in wages, beginning this summer.
The Sitka School Board on Wednesday (3-1-23) unanimously approved an adjusted pay scale for both summer aides and part-time aides who work during the school year.
A working mom whose daughter attends the program, told the board that sustaining the Ventures program was about more than convenience.
“Hello, my name is Alicia Haseltine. I am here in support of increasing the wages for Ventures. I also have a six year old daughter here that was very intent on coming because she loves the staff. On top of that, I think we all know, the childcare situation in the nation, especially in Sitka is pretty bleak. I am the director of Rehab Services at SEARHC. And if I don’t have childcare services, it does not only affect me, but a lot of this community. So I hope you guys support this as well. Thank you.“
Under the newly-adopted pay scale, base pay for summer childcare aides – typically students – will go up from $13 to $17. After two years’ experience, summer aides will earn $18 per hour. The top of the scale for Childcare Associates, who are 21 and older and licensed will bump to $24 per hour.
Part-time staff who work during the school year will be paid on the same scale.
Funding for the raises will come out of the Ventures special revenue fund, which had a balance of over $300,000 at the end of the last fiscal year.
Ventures director Annette Evans has spoken to the school board on several previous occasions over the year, urging the group to be proactive in supporting the program, which is housed in Baranof Elementary School, but operates independently of the district.
Although the outcome of the vote was never in doubt, Evans wanted to make sure the board understood that raising wages for her part-time staff was a step toward finding a community solution for childcare. She said, “We’re not asking for more money. We’re asking for adequate pay for these employees that work, and the responsibilities that they hold when they take this position.”