Alaska's track record of retaining teachers in our rural villages is not good. In fact, in some small villages the turnover rates of teachers trained at Outside universities can be as high as 100 percent.
State education officials say they are forced to recruit teachers from the Outside because the number of Alaskans earning teaching certificates lagged behind the demand. But recruitment brings another problem: Outside teachers are unaccustomed to the isolation and cultural differences in our rural communities and often don't stay.
The result is that parents and students aren't able to make strong connections with teachers, and rural districts are unable to provide the training teachers need to be successful.
Retention among Alaska Native teachers in rural villages is much better--closer to 90 percent--but there simply are not enough to go around. Two decades of studies and reports have said the key to stabilizing and improving our rural teaching force is to train Alaska Natives for the classroom. Yet today less than 5 percent of Alaska teachers are Native.
Two years ago, University of Alaska Fairbanks' four-year education degree was scrapped in favor of providing teacher certification only to students who had already earned a bachelor's degree in another subject. Educators hoped such a program would provide better-trained teachers, since they would already have a degree in a specialized subject before beginning teacher training.
Their intentions were good, but the result was to discourage Natives from pursuing teacher certification since many found it difficult or were unwilling to leave their villages for such an extended period.
However, this year the university has made a change with real promise. Through the UAF Rural Educators Partnership Program, Natives will have the option of using a combination of audio-conference instruction and one-on-one sessions with rural faculty members who travel between villages, instead of leaving their families and villages for urban-based education.
In their fourth year, students are matched with a teacher near their campus or village and placed in an Alaska classroom full time.
That means Natives can earn a four-year degree and teaching certification without leaving home, which could encourage more rural Natives to consider teaching as an option. The early response is good. University officials predict they will have at least 250 students enrolled in the program this fall.
In recent years, University of Alaska has made a real effort to effectively train Alaskans for jobs that otherwise would go to the Outside, particularly in the oil and mining sectors. In the case of our rural classrooms, it isn't just an issue of economics, it's an issue of putting the best-equipped teachers in front of our students.
Kudos to UAF for looking for an innovative solution to an old problem. When our schools are strong, our children receive the education they need to prepare for tomorrow's work force, and that makes Alaska stronger.
-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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