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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I



D.M. Murphy
Cross-cultural Education Development Program
Alaska State Department of Education
Anchorage, Alaska


This presentation is a concept paper, not a statistical treatment of school enrollment figures, costs, and logistics. The intent is to open consideration of a different approach to the delivery of secondary education in rural areas through a process of assessing and identifying existing resources for secondary education in the State, developing a community-based and environmentally oriented curriculum for grades nine and ten, then creating a sequence throughout the four-year program which would capitalize on the existing formal resources, and the community and environment as an educational resource.

Among the benefits of this approach are the effective utilization of existing facilities, a substantially decreased cost of the building program, greater involvement of the community in education, a more humanistic, experiential, and relevant high school program and a focus on teacher education processes. All these benefits would concurrently benefit the secondary school students and even be in the best interests of children at the elementary level.

The Problem

The pressures for providing secondary schooling on-site, at or near the home communities of the rural children, is intense from all quarters, legal, political, and moral. Among the results of such pressures has been a new regulation1 which calls for the establishment of a secondary program in any community in which there is one or more secondary school-age persons and an elementary school, unless the community opts not to have such a program. But the new regulation does not deal with program development processes, or provide insight into available resources, or alternative systems. Yet it does specify certain conventional academic area minimum standards which, fortunately, can be altered through outlined procedures.

Also, at this writing, it appears likely that a large scale high school building program will commence; but a commitment of funds for construction doesn’t suggest the nature of buildings best suited to fit the secondary programs which are yet to be developed.

Further, concern for the socio-economic impact of the new schools upon the communities is only recently awakening, much less there being solutions on the horizon. Community awareness and focus on the essential need for creating constructive outlets for adolescent energies during the majority of their waking hours, those spent not in school, may at this stage be of greater importance and consequence then the design of the formal school curriculum itself. Consideration of new small high schools development without concurrent consideration of how they will alter the social fabric of communities and families risks serious consequences to all.

Resources and Premises

As a beginning, let us examine the secondary school system from the perspective of educational resources which currently exist, in order to compare what there is with what is needed. The difference will, of course, imply the magnitude of the problem and will indicate the requirements necessary to address it. In order to not confuse the issue, the problem should not be thought of in terms of cost in dollars. Personnel, materials, buildings, equipment, land, and transportation costs are not of a programmatic nature and should be set aside momentarily to enable us to conceptualize and explore unconventional alternatives.

For clarification, the term ‘rural’ in the context of this examination means communities which are isolated from each other and from the urban centers by a lack of the normal means of surface transportation necessary to provide for the movement of construction materials, supplies, equipment, and people at a cost reasonably near that of non-rural communities served by highway, rail, or regular enroute marine transportation. At one end of the rural spectrum are towns such as Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham, and Metlakatla. At the other end are villages such as Noorvik, Kongiganak, Nondalton, Angoon, Chakyitsik, and Allakaket.

The identification of resources traditionally seen as being encompassed within an educational facility is a simple matter: the teachers, the texts, a gym, the shops and labs, the libraries, music rooms, instruments, and so forth. The identification of existing secondary school facilities is the second step and, again, can be readily done. It is known how many rural and urban high schools there are, their size and locations, and whether they are day schools or boarding schools, local or regional. These facts enter into the consideration of a rural high school development plan, but should be dealt with at a later stage since the existence of such schools is only one component of an overall plan and must be dealt with in the context of total needs.

For sake of simplicity, several premises should be stated:

  1. The existing rural elementary school facilities are not being fully or adequately utilized (evenings, summers, etc.).
  2. All school age children and youth do not have to attend school (or go through the educational process) during the same hours each day, days each week, or weeks each year.
  3. Total time of exposure to formal educative processes spent by a person does not, within certain limits, relate directly to educational outcomes. (That is, there is no magic in 5 hours, 20 minutes per day for 188 days, or any other figure. The reasons for these teaching times and length of school year are based on other considerations having little to do with concern for the student.)
  4. Increasing expenditures on traditional educational practices is not likely to improve educational outcomes substantially.2
  5. Research has not identified a varient of the existing system that is consistently related to students’ educational out-comes.3
  6. Research tentatively suggests that improvement in student outcomes, both cognitive and noncognitive, may require sweeping changes in the organization, structure, and conduct of educational experiences.4
  7. Secondary curricula do not have to be composed of an assemblage of subject of discipline-oriented units of instruction taught by persons whose knowledge is limited to one major and one minor subject in which he or she was schooled. Small high school programs can ill afford this approach, either financially (staff size and diversity) or educationally.
  8. A thematic, problem-solving, experiential approach, coupled with an understanding of the processes for analyzing the knowledge, wisdom, values, and skills reflected in the community and the educational environment immediately at hand, should provide the base for overall instructional design.
  9. To understand the world and the universe, a person must begin by gaming knowledge of the system of things immediately accessible and central to his or her life at any stage, at any place.
  10. The community and its people, the creatures and the land, the weather, the language, and all things which together compose the environment are immediately accessible to all persons; this environment, and its relationships to others and that of the whole, provides an educational resource which transcends that of the formal school; the school is but one part of this educational environment, but from it and within it, can come the help often needed by children and youth to understand, and gain benefit from, the broader environment.
  11. The perspective described above is either not shared by many educators or, assuming that it is, the approach to education that it implies is not generally being carried out because it demands of the educator a deep knowledge of the environment in which the school is set. Without this knowledge the environment cannot be explored with young people, cannot be related to the larger environment, and cannot form a secure base from which the educator can influence the shape of the educational system or argue substantively for its improvement.
  12. Colleges and universities tend to prepare educators and educational administrators for schools and school systems oriented to the needs of a society just past. The shift from a reactive role to an active and more forward looking, predictive role is crucial to the reform and improvement of (teacher) education.
  13. Colleges and universities tend to not prepare teachers and administrators for schools to meet the needs of societies, cultures, and economic levels different from the norms of the larger society.

The thirteen premises are written to espouse a particular perspective on education. They collectively imply the nature of a small school’s secondary program and system that may be appropriate for rural Alaska, and probably other rural places as well. Conceptually, they also apply to elementary level systems but, since elementary schools, their staffs, and their curricula are already established, the matter becomes one of intervention and change, rather than new planning.

Of essence is the implication that there are few teachers and school administrators who have been prepared to work with the creation and operation of an educational system such as would emerge if the premises were accepted and dealt with in systematic and programmatic terms. It’s not a matter of wanting to or not wanting to, or a matter of willingness to improve the schools by risking demands for change. It’s a matter of knowing how to go about it. For the future, it’s a matter of the colleges and universities creating a teacher education program which focuses on contemporary needs of society and even projects itself a few years into the future.

Nevertheless, the resources of the profession are available. To capitalize on them needs only the commitment and cooperation of a few, the educational leadership, who must be open to change, sensitive to needs and cooperative in nature-with colleagues and with the communities. The university/school/community triad is essential.

The Process and Design

A videotape produced to illustrate a university course titled “Rural Community as an Educational Resource” shows under-graduate students working with elementary children in a rural Alaska community. Of significance is that no classroom was needed, either by the university professor, the teacher trainees, or the children. The school classroom was, in fact, a base of operation, but it could have been a community center, a home, or anywhere that 1 5-20 children could convene and in which a blackboard or easel could be set up. It could have been a smaller room since desks and free ‘turf’ were not needed for the discussion of theory which preceeded stepping out of the building and into the larger environment. But the school was there and was used as it should be-not exclusively. Math theory on measurement, time, and velocity was placed in a practical and identifiable context by use of a watch, measuring tape, snowmachine, and a snowy road. The finding of field mouse burrows beneath snow covered grasses, the removal of part of the mouse’s winter food supply and its preparation for human consumption dealt with a whole spectrum of man’s relationship to the environment: conservation, survival, resourcefulness, food preparation, and history of a people. The university, school, community relationship was always present5.

This is but a small example, used to illustrate some of the multitude of possibilities by which an environmental curriculum can be developed in places where the formal facilities of the typical modern urban school and its laboratories are not feasible.

This is not intended to diminish the value of modern facilities. It suggests, however, that proper sequencing of educational experiences throughout a rural area is a logical approach to secondary education.

Let us look at the five existing types of educational environments which might lend themselves to a rounded secondary education experience:

  1. The rural community and its environs.
  2. The boarding high schools.
  3. The urban high school systems (including Career Centers) as associated with the boarding home program.
  4. The existing small area or community high schools.
  5. The larger rural community secondary day schools (or day school/boarding school) operations.

The first, the rural community, is not traditionally used as a formal educational environment.

The second and third are those which can be capitalized upon in an effective manner as a specific part of the sequencing plan but should not be considered as being the whole of the secondary experience.

As pertains to rural students, the last two are those which come closest to providing
a formal secondary education without the potentially harmful, or at least interfering, effect on young persons (and their families) resulting from removing them from their home environment. Such schools are few in number and their scarcity is one of the problems which gives rise to this examination.

Testimony from rural Native students,6 both informally and at formal hearings on the urban boarding home program, indicates conclusively that a large majority of ninth and tenth grade age youngsters are too young to handle their departure from home and their exposure to the city, its schools, and the alien cultural and social systems into which they are thrust. The negative manifestations of this uprooting and new exposure will not be dealt with here; the history of harm lies in many writings and testimony and the potential for harm appears self-evident. However, student testimony does indicate a positive value to many of them, born of the resources which the urban schools and urban society provide, as long as the students are mature enough to handle the separation-high school juniors and seniors.7

Each of the five educational environments has its problems and its advantages. It’s possible to solve or diminish the problems of each by utilizing the advantages of the others.

At the simplest level, the fundamental problems and advantages can be shown as follows:

1. Community Environment Not generally accepted as a formal educational resource and thus, not traditionally capitalized on by teachers: difficult for educators to deal with if not familiar with the culture of the community; school! community linkages rarely established; relevance of this environment to the formal in-school process either unseen, ignored, or not capitalized upon. A broad and deep educational resource; the place for application of theory and academic knowledge; can make the purpose of education real to she learner; provides for public involvement in educational processes; a microcosm of the broader society and structure; an identifiable core from which broader knowledge and understanding can grow; environment for affective growth.
2. Boarding High Schools Removes children from home at a too early age; and of parental, cultural, and community influence; shifts responsibility for whole growth of child to educators alien to the cultures of the students; rigid control necessary to reduce overall group behavioral problems; isolation from community which houses the institution; segregated-little exposure to youth of dominant society; teachers ill-prepared to deal with education of culturally different youth. Exposes youngsters to peers from other cultures and regions; provides health care; more variety in curriculum and in-school resources.
3. Boarding Home Program for Urban High Schools Same as previous one except shifts responsibility to a shared situation between urban teachers and foster parents; exposure to dominant society at too early an age without needed preparation and, too often, without guidance; initiates racist feelings on part of urban whites when Native students are “academically behind, slow, shy, nonverbal, homesick.”
Same as previous one; provides an intercultural environment; exposure to urban systems and institutions. (All of these which may benefit the more mature or older young person will likely have a negative or harmful effect on the less mature, rural youth.)

4. Community or Small Area High School
Lack of curricular variety, alternatives or depth; expensive to build, staff, and operate in numbers needed; few teachers trained in interdisciplinary approach; too rarely capitalize on environment of community; not equipped to provide indepth concentration in an academic emphasis (college preparatory), limited labs and shops. In or near home community of students; potential for capitalizing on community as an educational resource; teachers and school accessible to parents and school board land vice versa.)
5. Larger Rural Community Secondary Day Schools Often include facilities for boarding school operation (dorms, counselors) and have advantages and disadvantages in common with boarding schools. Since the day schools, or day school sections, serve only the residents of the community in which they are situated, their utilization as part of the sequencing proposition as relates to students from smaller villages cannot be a consideration.

A cursory synthesis of the disadvantages of each indicates several predominant problems: (1) the community is too seldom utilized as an educational environment; (2) young people are removed from home at a too early age; (3) segregation and isolation is a problem but uncontrolled exposure to the dominant society and its structures is also a problem, not a solution; and (4) small schools may not adequately prepare students for continuing (post-secondary) education. Implicit overall is that educators continue to work within each of the educational environments (except the community), and are limited by the nature of each system. The discrete systems are not, and have never been, transcended and so the disadvantages are never disposed of.

Yet each system has its distinct advantages. The overriding problem is that of timing. To illustrate: for the high school junior who has gained a certain level of maturity, security, and academic development, the urban high school and urban society could well provide an academic and social experience of great value; the same high school and urban exposure for the freshman and sophomore is likely to be disorienting and traumatic with disadvantages far outweighing the benefits. Conversely, for the college-bound junior or senior student, the small high school program which is adequate for the more average and younger ninth and tenth grade student is likely a lacking and frustrating experience. But even if it is not, the first year at college will surely show the student the lack of preparation provided by the secondary school, both academically and in his ability to cope with the urban and university social setting.

Ignoring curriculum for the moment, consider the positive aspects of each educational environment in the context of timing or sequence over a four-year secondary experience. Broadly it would look like this:


Aver. Stud. Age
Locale of School
Locale of Educational Experience
Type of Focus of Curriculum
14-15 Home Community School, Community, Field Interdisciplinary, Environmental, Emphasis on Communication
15-16 Home Community School Community, Field Same, but emphasis on Math/Natural Science/Social Science
16-17 Regional/Boarding for Some Rural Growth Community Career/Academic & Pre-Urban
  Urban Boarding Home for Some Urban Center Academic/Lab Sciences/Urban Societal/College Preparatory
  Home Community for Some   Same as level ‘2’
17-18 Same as Third Year Same as Third Year Same as Third Year. (Add students to urban who may be college-bound after pre-urban transition in Regional environments.

This implies the need for development of a typology of secondary students. The one suggested below should, as any other, be considered in its most broad or general terms, and not necessarily descriptive of any particular individuals:

I. Mature, Motivated, Academically Capable, High Aspirations

For these young people the experience and resources afforded by the larger urban schools and moving into the larger society could probably begin at the third-year level, following either two years in a small school or one-year small school, one-year regional (student/parent option.)

II. The Average Person in Academic Capability, Maturity, and Motivation

Within this board category can be found two general types of persons, depending on the social and cultural situation in which they have lived. The potential of each young person must be actively and objectively examined, and care must be given to assure that cultural bias is not a factor in distinguishing.

  1. The persons from the ‘deep’ rural areas, the small villages; limited prior exposure to even larger rural communities. A Native language is the first language and is predominantly spoken at home. The third year could be spent at a regional or area boarding school for most; some might remain in home community until fourth year.
  2. The persons from larger rural villages; may have spent time in urban or regional growth center; English has been predominant, or only, language. Some could go to urban center (parent/student option) and others to regional center. For the latter, this year could be for transition to urban school or in career education emphasis program.

III. Less Than Average Academic Performance, Ambivalent About Life Goals, Apparent Lack of Motivation

For these young people, the reasons for below-average performance or ambition must be determined. The problems may be born of historically unreconciled cultural differences between the individuals, community, teachers, and school. They might best be served through continuation of environmental education focus in the home community by teaching staff sensitive to the problem and able to convey the worth in pursuing a more indigenous life style. The fourth year in a regional high school may be considered, especially in a career or vocational education program.
Combining general student type with educational environment might result in a sequence such as this:





Prevailing Throughout the curricula at all the educational environments should be the focus on preparing young people to pursue their lives in whatever social or cultural milieu they may wish. The degree of emphasis will vary and will be implicit in the curriculum in each of the different settings. In the urban setting, the emphasis would be more toward functioning in the postsecondary institutions and, ultimately, within the dominant society rather than toward functioning in the village. Yet the students should be able to return and assume leadership positions in villages, regional centers, and Native Corporations in the fields of business management, political science, law, medicine, education, resource development, and others, as well as to do so within the larger society. The regional high schools would provide for a sorting-out process, a transitional experience, and career or vocational emphasis to enable students to take up positions ranging, for example, from village to regional to urban entrepeneurship.

The home community secondary school as envisioned here is probably the greatest departure from conventional concepts of educational systems. However, there is nothing that substantiates the idea that the institutions of one society have usefullness in another. And that idea is even more unsupportable if the institutions are created, peopled, and run almost exclusively by and for the dominant society. The relative failure of the educational institutions in general, and public schools specifically, to meet the needs of the rural Native Alaskans (as well as other minorities and low-income persons throughout the nation) illustrates the point. Yet proposed solutions on the horizon appear to be: an expansion of the institutions and their edifices and traditional program and the shift of their control to representatives of the local populace. The latter is a critical moral and political necessity. However, as pertains to the cultural minorities, the institutions remain operated by the dominant society, owned by the dominant society, and represent the ideals and perspectives of the dominant society which created them in the first place. When, and only when, the institution becomes a functional part of (not merely involves or serves) the community, does it become of real use to that community and its citizens. Given this thesis, let us examine the secondary school as an institution of the small community.

A potential system for sequencing rural secondary students through a four-year educational program which utilizes existing and reasonably attainable, resources and facilities has been outlined. As traditionally understood, small high schools would have to have several specific characteristics in order to provide adequate and equal educational opportunity for the rural youth:

  1. An edifice containing classrooms, a gymnasium, equipped laboratories for biology, physics, chemistry (and electronics), shops.
  2. A diverse teaching staff, each member having been schooled in one or two specialities in order to cover economics, government, mathematics, physics, geology, English, foreign language, art, music, speech and drama, physical education, typing, psychology, home economics, chemistry, wood and metal shop, environmental science, mechanical drawing, geography, history, and so forth.

To provide this for, and throughout, four years at the various levels of depth necessary in a school whose total student populace is less than 100, is not only unsupportable but unnecessary. The magnitude of the problem and cost is so great as viewed by school authorities, the legislature, and the federal government that only minimal services are likely to be made available. The costs of construction and staffing increase yearly, so no magic occurrence in the future will make the financial solution easier. Predictably, the matter will be addressed in a patchwork manner while generations of young people grow out of school age and while postsecondary institutions struggle with their legal roles as pertain to remedial programs of pre-postsecondary nature.

By contrast, two or three year community secondary schools, set up at the ninth and tenth (and for some cases, eleventh) grade level equivalent, don’t require the formal lab facilities; these are available in the regional and urban schools, accessible at a later time in the sequence. The same with the home economics room, physical education facilities, and even formal music rooms. The variety of disciplines or areas of study need not be available at every level; this is a matter of sequencing. Thus, the variety of teachers with their specialties doesn’t have to exist on the small schools staffs; they are accessible at other places at other times, depending on the various routes that the different students take. Again, a matter of sequence.

The history, knowledge, wisdom, and language of a community and a culture are available from the elders, the parents, the hunters, and council members of the community. They have not been brought into the educational process, and they must be. Developing an understanding of the society and social structures of the community as a slice of the society as a whole, and how they relate to the larger society of region, state, nation, and world can be a rich and comprehensive educational enterprise, augmented by touching the reality of the learner’s environment. The ecosystems of the lake, the tidal flats, the streams, the tundra, the snowfields and woods are the richest of all possible laboratories for the natural sciences, as are the aurora, winds, and storms and long cloudless times of darkness.

It is to the villages, forests, tundra, and gravel streams that outside scholars, bureaucrats, and advanced students come to study anthropology, geology, meteorology, history, linguistics, sociology, mythology, biology, and fisheries, forest and land management. The people are studied so that they can be taught. The efforts are also aimed toward adding to the broad body of knowledge and toward exploration for purposes of ultimate exploitation. Yet the young people who live in, and are a part of, these rich environments are placed in institutions remote from where it all is, both physically and intellectually, to pursue the education deemed traditional and right for them by those who follow the paths which their educational predecessors laid in some past epoch.

It is necessary, therefore, to create new curriculum content and processes to fit within the context of what is proposed herein. Granted, it will require the preparation of a new type of teacher and educational administrator. This implies the need for new perspectives by the postsecondary institutions. However, as noted, there are a sufficient number of such educators now who see things in this light to enable progress to begin. The curriculum developers must come together with the facilities planners. The superintendents must bring selected teachers and parents and school board members together. The universities and appropriate research institutes must identify those few representatives who can, and will, commit themselves to an examination of the issues and procedures. The parents and interested lay citizens must be involved and participating in the shaping of policy and plans.

The focus of thought and planning should not be upon the ways in which the existing systems (as school buildings, curricula, teaching staffs, administrations) of the dominant society can best be transplanted into small rural community settings. The focus should be upon questioning the efficacy of such ideas and upon finding the solutions which may lie elsewhere. The community school is too often only seen as a place which the community can more fully utilize. Rather, it must be seen that the community is the educational environment in which the school and staff provide a convenient and important setting for the orderly exploration and examination of what the total environment provides.


1. 4AAC 05.01 0-05090, State Board of Education.
2. Averch, Carrol, Donaldson, Diesling and Pincus, How Effective is Schooling, A Critical Review and Synthesis of Research Findings, Report to the President’s Commission on School Finance, Rand Corp., 1972.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Grubis, Steve, University of Alaska, X-CED Program, Spring, 1975.
6. Kleinfeld, J., A Long Way From Home, University of Alaska, CNER and ISEGR, 1973.
7. Ibid.




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Last modified October 3, 2008