Making history ...

Law would require class on Alaska in order to graduate

Posted: Monday, January 19, 2004

Alaska students would be better educated and perhaps better citizens were they to emerge from high school with a healthy understanding of the state's rich past, say supporters of legislation that would require a passing grade in Alaska history for graduation.

'We are right on the edge of telling kids to get their electives they will have to go find them somewhere else.'

--Ron Keffer, principal,

Homer High School

House Concurrent Resolution 19, introduced last year by Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Bethel, would request the Alaska Board of Education to require by regulation the equivalent of at least one semester of Alaska history before graduating from high school.

Meanwhile, House Bill 84, also Kapsner's, and its Senate companion SB 214, introduced by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, would make that requirement law.

But while state lawmakers agree knowing how yesterday's events influence today's decisions would be valuable, not everyone thinks mandating Alaska history studies is the best of ideas given the financial crises facing school districts across the state -- not to mention the scheduling headaches that might result.

Those are problems that can be overcome, Kapsner said Friday, and indeed, many objections have been answered.

Legislative attempts to encourage a statewide Alaska history curriculum have been going on at least since the 1980s, said Kapsner, who has worked on the issue for four years.

"I would like to see high school seniors when they graduate and become voters to have a broad understanding of what it means to be an Alaskan," she said. "We have voters who do not have a clear understanding of oil, the Russians, the Natives or the Alaska Permanent Fund or the contributions Filipinos or the Russians made. We have people born and raised here in their 50s who don't know many Inupiats are part Portuguese because of the whaling culture."

Consider, Kapsner said, that roughly two-thirds of today's Alaska citizens were not here when the permanent fund was established. It is vital citizens have a basic knowledge of state history, "especially now when we are grappling with things like our budget," Kapsner said. "We should make available and require (students) to know key aspects of Alaska history."

Education in Alaska history and government are vital to the development of a representative democracy and a civil society, she said.

Alaska history, government, culture and geography are taught in some fashion in many parts of the state and at various grade levels, but they are not universally available. For instance, according to a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District curriculum official, an Alaska history course is available to district high schools, but none currently offers it to students.

There also isn't any universality among the courses that are taught.

That could begin changing by next year.

Last fall, a $394,000 federal grant to the Alaska Humanities Forum helped launch a project to develop a state history curriculum. The 28-member Alaska History and Cultural Studies Curriculum Advisory Committee made up of professional historians, educators, business and industry leaders, lawmakers and representatives of Alaska Native associations is conducting the effort.

The project's director is Marjorie Menzi, who spent 15 years as a social studies specialist with the Alaska Department of Education, where she was involved in the development of the state's social studies standards.

"I've worked in social studies education for 20 years and have watched repeatedly as this issue has been raised in the Legislature," Menzi said Thursday.

The central question, she said, is whether it should be required to graduate. At the moment, that's a political issue. The Humanity Forum's project will make a well-rounded curriculum available whether Alaska history becomes a requirement or remains an elective course, she said.

What's envisioned, she said, is a Web-based course linking historical collections around the state, such as those held by state libraries. Archival photos would be digitalized. The entire course would be available on CD. The hope is that it would be visually stimulating enough to appeal to computer-savvy high school students. If funding can be found, the project's Web site could become permanent, thus making the course of study potentially available to anyone, Menzi said.

A pilot teacher-training program is tentatively scheduled for an August launch. The curriculum would be completed following that semester and finalized by early 2005, Menzi said.

Sen. Stevens, a former Univer-sity of Alaska professor, is president of the Alaska Historical Society and a member of the Alaska Humanities Forum board of directors. Alaska children need to know their history to understand the benefits they have, he said. But he acknowledges making Alaska studies a requirement rather than an elective may doom the two bills.

Simply making it a requirement by passing a law amounts to an unfunded mandate, he said. Requiring school districts to add to their curricula takes that decision away from local school boards, something that bothers many legislators, he added.

"There has been that conflict," Stevens said. "That's why it hasn't made it through the Legislature."

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, vice chair of the House Special Committee on Education, said school districts already face curriculum constraints, especially at the high school level, and are having a tough time meeting existing requirements.

He said he does support encouraging Alaska studies, but without making it mandatory. Forcing still more on districts facing fiscal difficulties and on students trying to pass exit exams may be too much.

"We need a good Alaska history course available, but the determination to use it should be left to the school districts," he said.

The authority to require Alaska history for graduation already exists at the local level, Seaton noted, but House Bill 34 would take that decision away from the district school boards.

Rep. Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai, also a member of the special committee, said he has no real problem with the bill, but he acknowledges being uneasy about the price.

"Promoting Alaska history, and history in itself, allows us to move forward. We learn from our history. I feel very strongly about teaching Alaska history to children," he said. "Cost is the concern that I have. Each district will be required to hire a certified teacher who would teach this class."

Even if Alaska studies remains an elective, it would still require hiring teachers, Wolf said.

"Our school district is already strapped," he said.

Alaska history is available in some schools around the state. Stevens noted that state history is woven throughout the curriculum in the Kodiak School District. Farther north, the Anchorage School District adopted an Alaska studies requirement in December 2001 and currently is piloting that curriculum.

Steve Ex, social studies curriculum coordinator for the Anchorage district said the class of 2006 will be the first required to pass the one semester, half-credit course. The course was developed following a community survey and a lot of in-depth research, he said. Menzi said the Humanities Forum project is fortunate to be able to work closely with the Anchorage district as they develop their Alaska history curriculum.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District currently has an elective Alaska history curriculum targeting freshmen. However, according to Glenn Haupt, director of secondary education, curriculum and assessment, no high school in the district currently teaches the course. Peninsula elementary school students do, however, get some state history during other courses of study, he said.

If required by law to teach Alaska history, there should be no real problems instructionally, Haupt said. The headaches would come trying to fit it into already crowded daily schedules when budgets are declining, he said.

Teaching Alaska history facing an even more fundamental issue -- the history itself. There are far fewer written records about Alaska than exist in many states, especially those in the east where there are numerous links to the detailed histories of other parts of the world. Documents are available going back to the arrival of Russian explorers. Beyond that, Alaska history and cultural studies likely would rely ever more heavily on oral traditions and archaeological data.

"It's a matter of piecing together a lot of that material," said Kenai resident Dr. Roger Pearson, coordinator of the Alaska Geographical Alliance and a member of the Humanities Forum curriculum advisory committee, who noted that the course being developed would go beyond history to include Alaska culture and geography.

Such studies may be of particular importance here, compared to other states, because Alaskans collectively own state assets, including some 103 million acres, plus submerged lands, he said.

"My own sense is that Alaska may be a little different," he said. "There is almost a need to know this if we are going to be responsible Alaska citizens."

Another issue concerns the target of the new curriculum -- the students. Ex said the Anchorage requirement has the effect of reducing some flexibility for students. Before the new course was mandated, high school students there were required to complete two semesters each on Alaska's economy and government and also complete two more electives in social studies.

The new history course will replace one of those electives, Ex said.

Ron Keffer, principal at Homer High School, said his school could teach any course necessary and do it very well if it had the resources.

"We are not in a resource-rich environment right now," he said.

Over the last several years, Homer High School, like other peninsula schools, has lost staff members and had to cut programs because of declining budgets. Schools are required to teach the core subjects, but students also must complete a certain number of elective courses to get their diplomas.

"We are right on the edge of telling kids to get their electives they will have to go find them somewhere else," Keffer said. That would mean correspondence or home school, which might mean a decline in enrollment and a drop in state funding, a downward spiral schools want to avoid, Keffer said.

Electives are few in number and crowded now, he said.

"You can't come here and take an art class anymore except pottery."

A legislative mandate to teach Alaska history, especially if it didn't come with more money for additional personnel, would mean eliminating an existing course to make room, he said.

If state history is required, it will cost money, but the payoff may well be worth the price, Stevens said.

"We like to say we are proud of our state, but we don't put our money where our mouth is," he said.

Kapsner said she expected Sen. Ted Stevens, who worked to get the federal funding, to mention it when he addresses the Legislature in March. She also said she would remain optimistic about the bill's chances right up to the close of the session.

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