ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A new undergraduate degree program was approved for the University of Alaska that educators hope will boost the number of Alaska-trained elementary school teachers, particularly in rural areas.
The four-year bachelor of arts degree is among 19 approved by the University of Alaska Board of Regents in June.
Despite having only a few months to advertise the major, UA officials predict at least 250 students will enroll this fall. The three main UA campuses will offer the major, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks managing the program in rural Alaska.
''It will not only speed the process up, but I think it's going to result in much higher-quality teachers that we turn out,'' said Roger Norris-Tull, dean of the UAF School of Education.
Alaska Pacific University has a four-year teaching degree. But it has been two years since UA had a similar program. It axed it in favor of the current teaching program, a course offered only to students who already have a bachelor's degree.
''The rationale was that we needed higher-quality teachers and having them get a degree in one specific subject area before they got their teacher training would make them better teachers,'' Norris-Tull said. ''What it did was effectively eliminate all of our rural students.''
There are about 800 Alaska Natives working as teacher aides in village schools annually who would have to leave their villages to earn a bachelor's degree. They can't afford it and find leaving the village is too disruptive, said John Weiss, UAF Rural Educators Partnership Program director.
However, when rural Alaskans teach in their villages, teacher retention is higher than 90 percent, he said. In comparison, some village schools that hire teachers from Outside suffer between 50 percent and 100 percent teacher turnover annually.
''The ones who grow up in those villages, once they get jobs there, they stay,'' Weiss said.
The first three years of the major's curriculum are designed around the Alaska state benchmark tests that students take in third, sixth and eighth grade, and the high school graduation qualifying exam Alaska students must pass to graduate on and after 2004, said Claudia Dybdahl, University of Alaska Anchorage School of Education director.
While students on the UA campuses spend these three years in classrooms, rural students will use a combination of audio-conference instruction and one-on-one sessions with one of six rural faculty members who will travel between villages.
In the major's fourth year, students are matched with a teacher near their campus or village and placed in an Alaska classroom full time.
Rural residents can stay in the villages their entire four years in the program. If they are teacher aides, they can spend their fourth year in their village school.
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