JUNEAU (AP) -- Faced with a unique culture, harsh winters, and Spartan living conditions, many Lower 48 teachers who accept jobs in rural Alaska don't last long.
That's why the state needs to attract Native students to work in education, says Rhonda Hickok. She's manager of a project called Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools.
Hickok, 37, a former Juneau-Douglas High School history teacher, has headed the federally supported PITAS program since July 2001.
Hickok, who grew up in Valdez and Glennallen, decided in high school to become a teacher. After moving to Juneau in the mid-1980s, she said, she came to realize the value of Native programs in education.
''There is much improvement needed in Native education and I want to be a part of that,'' Hickok said.
PITAS prepares Alaska Natives in Southeast and the Lower Kuskokwim School District to become teachers.
The program aims to curb the high turnover of teachers in rural areas, Hickok said, noting that in some villages the entire faculty changes every year.
''You really have to want to be there. And those who really want to be there are those who live there, those who are accustomed to the land and feel very much at home there,'' she said.
She also noted the cultural disconnection between Native students and teachers from Outside.
''If you are taught and you are schooled in mainstream society, you are only getting part of the picture,'' she said, noting that many rural Native students operate at a different pace and have different learning styles than urban students.
Before taking over program leadership, Hickok worked with PITAS as a mentor to students at Juneau-Douglas High School.
Participating teachers and aides are given a small stipend for spending time outside the classroom with Native students, preparing them to go for a college degree in education.
Sixteen teachers in the Lower Kuskokwim and Southeast are mentoring. Three are in Juneau, two at the high school and one at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.
PITAS is in its third year of operation under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Drawing from her experiences as a mentor and borrowing ideas from other programs around the country, Hickok formulated a curriculum for PITAS students.
Students participate in online courses, conduct interviews with faculty, and participate in a summer institute at the university in Juneau.
Those who continue with PITAS through college are awarded scholarships that include tuition, books and lodging. There are 36 UAS students with PITAS scholarships, she said.
Paula Dybdahl, a history teacher at Juneau Douglas High School and a PITAS mentor, directed the UAS Summer Institute last year. Students live on campus for two weeks and attend classes.
''It's almost like an immersion into university life,'' Dybdahl said.
Hickok is involved with students on an individual level, said Dybdahl.
''She reviews students' assignments at the high school level and tries to maintain contact with students at all levels,'' Dybdahl said, calling Hickok a role model for the students and herself. ''I think the kids at both levels are so lucky to have her as their cheerleader, because she gives 110 percent.''
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