Federal program takes aim at teacher shortage in villages

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Michelle Martin saw teachers from the Outside come and go in her town of Kake.

Now a federal program is allowing her to pursue a degree in education with the hope that she will stay and teach.

University of Alaska Southeast is in its second year of a three-year federal grant worth $1 million called Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools.

It is intended to lessen the high turnover rate among teachers in remote villages and better bridge the cultural gap that sometimes exists between teachers and Native students.

''When I was in school there wasn't much culture,'' said Martin, 28, who has worked as a secretary, classroom aide and substitute teacher in Kake. ''I remember singing in a Christmas program in Spanish. Now my daughter is in preschool and she's learning 'Jingle Bells' in Tlingit.''

The program, administered through the UAS Professional Education Center, has 23 students enrolled with full scholarships.

Proponents say Native teachers will be able to relate to rural students better and are more likely to stay in their community.

Natives make up 23 percent of the state's K-12 population, but only 5 percent of teachers are Native, according to the state Department of Education.

The Lake and Peninsula School District near Bristol Bay loses more than a third of its staff each year. In Kake, the turnover rate was 18 percent this year and 27 percent in 2000.

''We have a huge number of districts in Alaska that cannot retain teachers and cannot retain quality teachers. We're seeing that in test scores,'' said Rhonda Hickok, coordinator of the program at UAS.

For prospective Native teachers, the cost of college is the biggest barrier, said Ray Barnhardt, co-director of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

He said the scholarship program is intended to eliminate that barrier. It allowed Martin to move to Juneau from Kake with her husband and two young children.

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