Education secretary plans field trip to rural Alaska

Posted: Sunday, May 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige will tour rural schools Monday and Tuesday, and Alaska education officials hope he will see they have little chance of meeting provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law without help.

State officials want Paige to grant Alaska exceptions to the sweeping education act that outlines strict provisions for student achievement and qualifications for teachers and aides.

John Davis, superintendent of the Bering Strait School District, echoed state Department of Education and Early Development officials when he said he saw no problem with the goals of No Child Left Behind: strong accountability for all students, an emphasis on quality instruction and options for parents dissatisfied with their children's schools.

But in Alaska, Davis said, administrators are in danger of spending an inordinate amount of time trying to meet requirements of the law while facing nearly insurmountable obstacles.

If that's my primary focus, then I'm not spending time teaching children,'' said Davis, whose district includes Norton Sound and Seward Peninsula villages from St. Michael to Shishmaref.

Among the challenges:

Hiring highly qualified'' high school teachers those with a degree or a major in the subject they teach for every core subject at schools. More than 100 of Alaska's schools, or about a fifth of them, employ three or fewer teachers. Thirty-six have just one teacher.

Hiring highly qualified'' teacher aides holding at least an associate's degree or sufficient college credits in remote villages that have little access to higher education.

Testing in Alaska's smaller schools, where even a handful of absent students can mean the school fails to show adequate yearly progress as defined by the federal law.

Offering student choice, the requirement to give students the option to transfer elsewhere if a school is identified as in need of improvement.''

Davis will host Paige on Tuesday at Hogarth Kingeekuk Memorial School in Savoonga, assuming the weather permits travel to St. Lawrence Island.

Aside from No Child Left Behind, Davis said, he wants Paige to appreciate other challenges for Alaska educators. Just getting to Savoonga means a 90-minute aircraft ride from Nome over the Bering Sea. Teachers who take jobs in rural Alaska often live in substandard housing. Teacher turnover runs about 25 percent annually, which can mean completely new staffs every four years.

On Monday, Paige will fly to Bethel, a regional transportation hub in southwest Alaska. Then he will shuttle 40 miles to Tuntutuliak, a village of about 400 people. Paige will also stop in Nome and Fairbanks.

Tuntutuliak will give Paige a look at another troublesome provision of No Child Left Behind: its effect on heritage language'' programs.

For their first three years of classes, students in Tuntutuliak are taught almost exclusively in their first language, Yup'ik Eskimo. The program follows a body of research indicating that students must learn one language well, or risk never developing skills needed for a higher order of thinking.

However, the new federal education law requires that as third graders, the students must be tested in English versions of math and reading, setting up the Tuntutuliak students up for failure.

Federal law allows children on a student-by-student basis to be assessed in a language in which they have demonstrated proficiency, but there is not a version of the standardized test in Yup'ik.

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