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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. II


Perry T. Mendenhall
Nome City School District

Issues regarding Native education in rural Alaska have surfaced many times in Alaska news headlines during the 1970s. Many of these issues have been addressed on the national and state level through the passage of new educational laws and regulations. Conformity to these new laws has meant that certain improvements and changes have taken place in Alaska’s rural and urban schools. Much of the conformity process has been by trial and error, rather than through a controlled process of change, due to Alaska’s cultural, geographical, and historical makeup. Some of the school districts have been relatively successful in helping their clients obtain a quality education, while others are still trying to become resourceful and effective in delivering quality programs. In rural areas, educators have the opportunity to use the unique conditions either to enhance or hinder the educational experiences of the students and the community.

When a school teacher or administrator first arrives in rural Alaska, he becomes aware of two major problems: the unusual environment and the cross-cultural impact. The former consists of geographic and climatic problems to which an educator must adapt. These include the following: smallness of the community; limitation of some available resources and richness of others (cultural, natural, village life); separation of communities from each other and regional centers; travel limited to plane or boat; harsh weather and darkness; effect on physical plant and curriculum; and subsistence seasonal activities affecting school scheduling and student performance.

Cross-cultural problems can be understood by considering the traditional culture, acculturation processes and innovative approaches that have an impact in rural Alaska. Traditional ancient culture was once highly adapted to the region with a stable educational system of its own. The impact of modern technology and “Western culture” have created new needs that conflict with the cultural norms and role expectations. Acculturation to the new society through the western education system is ineffective, unstable, inconsistent, uncoordinated and often highly political.

Innovative approaches to correct disorientation of the young people through a modern bicultural curriculum program are needed; and to do this, more rural citizen input, student input, stabilized funding, and better informed and sensitized administrators and teachers are needed.

At the close of the first year in rural Alaska, the visiting educator either will become more aware and concerned, or apathetic to the educational problems that he has witnessed and experienced. If the educator has the right interest, concern, knowledge, resources and support, he can help shape the educational experiences to fit the needs of the rural students and community, and also enjoy himself during the process. Yet if he does not have the skills, knowledge or resources to help him in his endeavors, he can become frustrated. If the educator displays apathy, then he is doing a disservice to his profession and the rural community.

Since staff turnover of school administrators and teachers is quite high in rural Alaska, there is a need for Native educators to become more involved in rural education. They are much more likely to stay in Alaska because of their cultural ties and the vested interest they have in the land and the people. The following three areas of Native education are in need of improvement:

  1. The up-grading of administrative policies and procedures to reflect a bicultural school organization and curriculum
  2. Citizen involvement, which includes the development of the school boards and parent committees
  3. Staff development, including the up-grading of staff recruitment, orientation and in-service training; and career development for Native paraprofessionals.

These areas continual ly interface, but each of the three sections tends to concentrate on one aspect.

With a controlled process of change in these three areas, the Native education situation in rural Alaska may be greatly enhanced for both the students and the educators. This would mean working with various interest groups (University of Alaska, State Department of Education, Alaska Native Education Association, etc.) so that implementation can materialize.

A discussion in these three areas is also timely because the change in the Alaska Department of Education regulations regarding more community involvement in the planning and evaluation of school programs has created new expectations for rural school districts.

Up-grading of administrative policies and procedures to reflect a bicultural school organization and curriculum

The philosophy of school districts needs to state the bicultural mission and recognize the legitimacy of a modern Alaska Native culture. The major question that a school board needs to consider in order to evaluate its philosophy on bicultural issues is: Does the school board see the school as an acculturation force for the “dominant culture” or as a means to education for a modern viable society uniquely “Alaskan”? By knowing the district’s position on this question, the staff will be better able to address the school to bicultural issues.

The school board’s direction for the staff needs to be clear and comprehensive. In order for this to take place, the Native-dominated boards may need workshops and training so that they can effectively relate their desires to the staff. Non-Native dominated boards need to hold workshops and hearings to make sure their bicultural philosophy is in compliance with new laws and regulations regarding “Native education.”

The district administration’s philosophical leadership also should be reviewed and questioned. Sometimes the staff may know the school board’s position, but may be uncertain as to where the administration stands on Native education issues. Is the administration’s leadership thoroughly articulated and integrated with the educational system, or is it inconsistent with no explicit action and support? The school board needs to insure that its policies are being translated into practice. The administration also needs to articulate its views to the student body. Students need to recognize that the school is aware of their cultural identity.

If there are no administrative policies and procedures in the district to reflect a bicultural organization and curriculum, they should be developed with some of the following considerations in mind:

  1. School policy should reflect an articulated philosophy that has been discussed and established by the school board
  2. Rapid changes in the political and social environment require that the administration be informed of, involved in, and in tune with national, state, regional and local matters that affect Native affairs and education issues. Inservice training and on-going communication with staff are essential, along with contact with informed Native leaders and parents in the modern Native community
  3. There should be a constant on-going review and correction system built in, so that adjustments can be made in the district’s policies and procedures when necessary. No person of one culture can completely identify with people of a different culture. Therefore, the administrator needs a highly developed feed-back system from staff, students, parents and Native leaders on school policies and procedures
  4. Support is needed from schools in developing a modern rural culture reflecting both the Native and the “Western” way of life with as much harmony as possible
  5. There needs to be established a strong, unified, integrated curriculum to reflect an integrated bicultural community, rather than having “Native Studies” tagged on as an elective, with its parts often not even integrated with each other and competing with the “real” academic courses for status, budget, and structural support
  6. Financial support for including Native Studies in an integrated program should be included in the basic funding for the district. Dependency on supplementary funding for Native Studies keeps it as a separate component and hinders the integration process
  7. Unified Native/non-Native staffing should be mandatory in developing a bicultural curriculum. All teachers should become involved and work along with Native professionals and para-professionals in all areas
  8. There is a need for much structural support, due to the rapidly changing situation. A highly organized system of communication, delegation, and decisionmaking, both vertically and horizontally, needs to be developed. Problem-solving and communication between head office and class- room, and across departments, need clearly defined limits, and freedoms within the limits, to create the best climate for controlled change
  9. Procedures need to be established to encourage maximum involvement from the Native staff. This is needed due to past neglect of the Native input and will be useful in the future development of bicultural materials
  10. Long-term commitment of the school district to recruit, train and upgrade the local instructional staff is essential. The Native staff needs to have a complete understanding of their role in curriculum development, delivery methods, role modeling for the students and a sense of ownership for the programs
  11. Commitment to, and support of, the bicultural curriculum from the administration is essential. The staff and the community should have a clear understanding that the program expectations will be carried out in compliance with state and federal requirements.

Once the district’s administrative policies and procedures regarding bicultural issues have been developed, they should be enforced fairly and systematically so as to foster a positive climate and avoid polarization and confrontation. In turn, properly established policies and procedures will encourage community and citizen involvement.

Citizen Involvement (including the development of school boards and parent committees)

The school district has the ethical responsibility to represent the wishes of the community as expressed through its leaders. There is a possible conflict in that the school also has a professional obligation to follow the best practices in establishing the learning environment. In the event of conflict, who has the final say: The community, or the professional educators? What say do the students have in such a possible conflict? According to State regulations (4 AAC 05.070), “Districts shall provide for the direct involvement of parents, students, and other members of the community, including the local school committee, in the development of plans and evaluations and improvement of the educational program.”

Regarding community participation, another question has to be asked: Does the citizen group reflect the community or narrow interest groups? The feedback from other community factions would have to be analyzed. Additionally, it is necessary to ascertain whether the school administration wants true citizen involvement, or do they prefer token rubber stamping on specially prepared Native programs and basic education programs? According to the various educational laws and regulations, the school administration does not have final say on school programs, whether they are basic, supplemental, bilingual, bicultural or multicultural. That authority rests with the school board.

The school districts that are having problems conforming to the new laws often have shown only token interest in having Native parent involvement. The organizational activities that they display testify to their use and reliance upon old norms, formulas, ideologies, organizational structures, urban techniques, and political strategies to carry education to the rural Native villages. While at one time decisionmaking was far removed from the Native communities and education was implanted from a distance, this is no longer acceptable. Also the belief that educators have the expert knowledge and know-how as to what Natives want in education, and that the Natives do not have the interest to become involved with their children’s education process is not valid. In some cases, the problem is the district’s fear of having the Native communities involved, as well as the lack of knowing how to get the Native population interested and involved to assist them in the school’s endeavors. So they carry on with the trial and error approaches, or retain the “status quo” with their present organizational system and educational programs. Thus, the Native students in rural Alaska become victims again to inadequate educational management techniques and foresight.

It has been only recently that the majority of the Native population in rural Alaska has been entrusted with decision-making powers for the purpose of local control in the area of education and, for many, it is their first experience.

Many Native parents do not understand or realize the impact of the local control roles they now play. If they realized the power they now have, they would become more involved in making the changes they want in their schools today, and in enforcing those changes.

Awareness programs and workshops should be initiated to acquaint all personnel, parents, and pupils with the nature and intent of the new laws and provisions for ensuring legal rights. These would help the Native parents to prepare for their on-going role in shaping the direction of their village schools and the newly formed Regional Educational Attendance Area (REAA) districts.

School curriculum and organizational development will fail without true involvement at all levels. Administrators must have broad, sincere, intelligent and critical input from the community, and the only way to procure that input is to provide the means and opportunity to potential contributors. Key areas of organizational development regarding community participation should be clearly spelled out and supported by the school administration. The roles of the school board members, parent committees, and parent and citizen input should be identified, and provisions should be made for various means and opportunities to be heard. An open classroom policy should be encouraged so that the parents and relatives of students can observe class activities. The teacher should make committed efforts to foster citizen involvement through field trips, displays, programs, visitation (both school and home), resource persons, chaperons, Native para-counselors and tutors.

A tutoring system should be developed in which the school provides the necessary supports (e.g., schedule, space, budget, in-services) for community members to assist their children in their school work. Through this means, strong role models from the Native community could be integrated into the education system. Para-counseling could also be incorporated in this manner.

In order to make informed decisions, reflecting the best thoughts of the Native community, the administration should have individual mentors and community resource consultants that they can rely upon when the needs arise.

The administration will need to recognize the legal powers of the various parent committees and provide the necessary support. The schools should use the committees for their actual intent, rather than just for paper support. Media coverage of the citizen involvement should be encouraged and made known through educational news and events (radio, T.V., newspapers, meetings, etc.). Student participation on the various parent committees and school board would also encourage student concern and input.

Staff development, including the up-grading of staff recruitment, orientation and in-service training; and the career development of Native para-professionals

Few administrators and teachers have the opportunity for training in handling intense bicultural situations undergoing rapid change. They learn on-the-job, by trial and error, and often must undergo insurmountable pressures. Consequently, there tends to be a large staff turnover in rural Alaska. There is an increasing need for workshops to prepare the educators for such intense bicultural situations.

Some school boards and administrations do not recognize or may not admit to the need for staff development in the bicultural area. Others admit that it is needed, but have other priorities for the available financial resources. There will never be sufficient funding for staff development unless it receives top priority.

There are almost no Native administrators and very few Native teachers to draw from in the State of Alaska. The first long-term priority must be the development of the local people as professionals and para-professionals.

Career interests, work-study and academic counseling at the high school level could be coordinated with the financial aid sources and teacher training programs at the colleges.

Career ladders must be developed for the para-professionals with necessary support available for their progression and incentives for training. Built-in release time and other support services should be made available if a career ladder is to be utilized. There would also have to be financial aid and counseling services coordinated with the university system. The work environment must be highly encouraging or the local people will not take the risk to embark on a long-term professional commitment. They must feel wanted.

The para-professionals must be utilized at the maximum level of responsibility for which they are capable (other than babysitting duties, etc.). They should be included in bicultural curriculum development, and program planning and evaluation, because they are familiar with their own culture.

Formal studies should be integrated with on-the-job-training, including training for their immediate supervisors, as they are the key persons who serve as role models and provide encouragement. Much learning comes through imitation of strong, sensitive leaders or colleagues.

The first short-term priority should be the recruitment of new staff who have the potential for learning to cope with and function in a creative and productive manner in bicultural situations. The recruiting process should attract the best available educators, and the screening techniques should focus on the type of person needed. This means developing suitable interview procedures, asking open-ended attitudinal questions, and carefully evaluating the interviewees’ past experience and training.

Orientation of “outsiders” new to the district and environment should be a two-way process, during which time the local and the new staff learn about each other on a first-hand basis. If available, a reading list should be provided, so that the new recruit can read about the locale, the culture and the school. The orientation should include rap sessions, presentations, and interviews with assorted “informants.” A buddy system might also be established. An orientation follow-up and other on-going efforts should be planned, and open communication with the administration should be encouraged in such a way that it will be non-threatening to the new recruit.

Staff development should include in-service training (on-goiing and regular) on bicultural matters. This will require administrative support, with staff release time for such activities. These in-service training activities should have varied approaches, so as to try many methods, including both group and individual consultation. The use of Native resource people can help provide a balanced perspective during these in-service orientation sessions. Utilizing students, when available, would also be appropriate. The bicultural orientation should be integrated with all curriculum development efforts, taking a positive problem-solving approach rather than a negative criticism of the staffs’ efforts. The set limits, ground rules, and the freedom within them should also be made very clear. Productive in-service programs for the staff would benefit the students and the community, especially having a bicultural orientation program tied in with curriculum development.

The proposed changes stated in the above three areas are approaches to be initiated under existing state regulations and resources. The changes described will be difficult to implement, but efforts in this direction will represent an attempt at a controlled process of change in trying to make the educational experience more culturally relevant and meaningful for rural Alaskan students.

Studies in organizational development and change processes have pointed to the following considerations as being particularly significant in any change effort:

  1. First of all, fear has to be overcome. There is always a risk involved in undertaking change. School organizations are very visible to the community and everyone thinks they are fair game for criticism. Everyone is an “expert” in what the schools should be doing. Therefore, it is easier for school administrators to keep a low profile and not draw attention through radical changes. The best strategy is to alleviate unnecessary fear by involving clients and the staff at all stages of a change effort
  2. Any change in the over-all philosophy or methodology of a district must be accepted by the top administration if it is going to be successfully carried out. To facilitate this, the administrators must be personally responsible for the proposed changes, not just give “paper commitments.” Change introduced from the outside will be viewed as threatening, and will be resisted
  3. The first step in any change situation must be an opening up of communication. Professional staff will not accept any change in which they have had no participation in planning. All levels of staff communication must be open so that change will be accepted throughout the whole school organization
  4. Most school organizations do not encourage teamwork. Many teachers are isolated in their individual classrooms and in a one-to-one relationship with the principal. They don’t often share their successes and failures with their colleagues and thus can be defensive and fearful of criticism. In such a climate there is little opportunity to deal with sensitive problems. Teachers need to be encouraged to function as a team through supportive procedures, such as release time or planning meetings, setting up their own in-service, exchanges, visitation time, contact with the community resource people and participation in planning
  5. Few people change from being told “what is right,” i.e., by being given “expert” advice or orders. Changes in teacher behavior occur when the teachers have participated in real problem- solving and decision-making activities.

The advent of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act and the intensified drive to develop rural Alaska’s petroleum and natural resources ensures that the momentum of cultural change will continue to increase. Alaskan educators have a tremendous opportunity to apply modern concepts of organizational change to this situation and see the school become an integral part of the rural community by creating a bicultural school organization and curriculum through a control led process of change.






Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified October 15, 2008