ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Organizers of the first Alaska Native Education Summit rented conference space anticipating fewer than 400 participants wanting to solve problems faced by Native students in public schools.
When more than 500 Native leaders, school administrators, teachers, academics and others signed up for the two-day event, organizers decided to cram them in and push forward.
''It's too important exclude anyone,'' said Sharon Lind, president of the Aleut Foundation.
Participants Friday began discussing low standardized test scores for Alaska Native students, cultural differences that hinder learning, high teacher turnover in rural schools, barriers to Alaska Natives becoming teachers, and other pressing issues.
Lind said no one expects answers to all problems facing Native students in a two-day conference.
''If we could accomplish developing a forum for positive change, that would be a huge accomplishment,'' Lind said.
Lind is chairwoman of the ANCSA Education Consortium, made up of the education arms of the 13 Native regional corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The consortium is co-sponsor of the conference along with the nonprofit First Alaskans Foundation.
Conference participants spent Friday morning defining problems.
Keynote speaker Byron Mallott, president of the First Alaskans Foundation, praised the commitment of Alaska educators but said more needs to be done.
Since Alaska Natives first came into contact with the European culture, Mallott said, ''There was an effort to take from us who we were.''
Mallott said the school system must recognize Alaska Natives and not try to homogenize them. The system must respect the Native culture, recognize the way Native students learn, and build on those assets, he said.
If the education system demands that Native children leave their identity at the door, the system is doomed to failure, Mallott said.
''If it fails us, it fails all of us,'' Mallott said.
Paul Ongtooguk, a senior research associate at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research, ticked off symptoms of an education system that needs improvement.
Ongtooguk said the number of certified Alaska Native teachers has actually begun to decline.
There are as many Alaska Native young men in prison as there are in higher education -- at five times the cost, he said.
The suicide rate among young Native men is eight times the national average, a statistic Ongtooguk said is relevant to the conference because of an education system that leaves students unprepared and with little hope.
At the same time schools want support from parents, teachers sometimes treat what goes on inside the classroom as classified information, Ongtooguk said. He tried one year to obtain his daughter's textbooks in advance of her classes.
''It was easier to buy atomic data from Los Alamos,'' he said.
First Alaskans Foundation hired The McDowell Group to survey Alaska Native opinions on education in Alaska.
Spokesman Eric McDowell said 1,000 Native households were surveyed, and 42 percent of the respondents said they do not get education opportunities equal to those given non-Natives. The sentiment was higher among Alaska Natives living in urban areas.
But when asked what the reason was for not completing high school, 30 percent of those surveyed listed ''family doesn't encourage schooling'' as their first or second response.
Younger respondents were more likely to say the education system favors all students equally, McDowell said. People age 35-54 were less likely to have confidence that Native students were well prepared by Alaska's schools.
Conference participants planned to break into groups on Saturday to suggest what can be done.
Lind said the sponsors will decide after the conference what to do with the information collected.
Starting in 2004, high school seniors will have to pass a qualifying exams to obtain a high school diploma. That deadline has given educators a sense of urgency regarding the needs of Alaska Native children, Lind said.
''The timing is right for this,'' she said.
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