Alaska Native graduation rates rise

Graduation rates for Native Alaskan students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District continue to rise, with 91 percent of Native students graduating in fiscal year 2017, said Native Education Program Coordinator Conrad Woodhead at the Native Leaders Gathering on Friday.

The Native Alaskan graduation rate has risen to surpass the overall district graduation rate, which was at 84 percent in FY17. In comparison, the district graduation rate in FY15 was 82 percent and the Native graduation rate was 80 percent, according to Woodhead.

“This shocks a lot of people,” Woodhead said to a room full of Native leaders during the meeting at Kenai Peninsula College. “I’m proud of everyone’s efforts.”

The meeting is the second of it’s kind. Last year, Woodhead and members of the school district’s Title VI Indian Education Advisory Committee held their first meeting in February to gather input from tribal leaders and partner organizations for the committees to use when prioritizing how Title VI federal funds should be used. Title VI, formerly Title VII under the No Child Left Behind Act, is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. Under the act, two activities have become mandatory: the development and implementation of plans, methods strategies and activities to improve Alaska Native’s educational outcome and the collection of data to assist in the evaluation of programs.

“We had our first gathering and gave directions to the committee and we accomplished quite a lot,” said district Superintendent Sean Dusek. “I’m thankful for those statistics, because it’s carrying our district’s overall graduation rate.”

Friday’s meeting had a similar goal as the first, but also focused on the progression of current programs and priorities. Some successes noted by Woodhead included tutoring programs, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), the Upstream Academy and the Kenai Peninsula Native Youth Leadership (KPNYL).

ANSEP, which is part of the University of Alaska system, works towards teaching Alaska Natives science, technology, engineering and mathematics in order to change the hiring patterns in these work forces. The program has stringent academic requirements and can only be taken once. This year, the district has 12 students enrolled in the program, which engages students in “a variety of hands-on activities, from building a computer, dissecting a squid to testing structures on an earthquake simulation table,” Woodhead said.

Students accepted into the ANSEP program in Anchorage attend free of charge, but it costs about $3,000 for each student, according to Whitehead.

Similarly, The UP STREAM academy brings Alaska Native students from across the district together at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai for a week-long camp that involves more kids in science and technology while fostering relationships.

The Kenai Peninsula Native Youth Leaders program was created by the district to guide Native youth through their school career within the district by providing the students “the opportunities necessary to learn leadership skills, while having pride in their culture,” according to Project GRAD, the group that organizes the KPNYL.

“These programs are directly funded out of Title VI,” Woodhead said. The district’s Title VI is used to support the “unique educational ad culturally related academic needs of Alaska Native and Native American students so that they meet the challenging academic achievement standards all students are expected to meet,” according to Woodhead.

The district’s Native Education Program is funded by the Office of Indian Education under the U.S. Department of Education, and current funding totals just under $500,000.

In addition to the programs, Woodhead lauded the district’s partnerships with local Native groups including the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Nanwalek IRA Council, Seldovia Village Tribe, Port Graham Village Council and the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District, among others.

“When we look at partnerships and we talk about what we’re doing for kids, even though (graduation rate) is only one indicator, it is a huge step in the right direction,” Woodhead said. “It’s not just one thing though… It’s our partnerships throughout the district. It’s what we’ve done with Upstream, ANSEP, KPNYL. It’s all of it.”

Currently, about 13 percent of district students are identified as eligible for funds through Title VI of Every Student Succeeds Act Title VI, Woodhead said. Of the 1,156 Title VI students, approximately 437, or 38 percent, could represent the eight Kenai tribes of Kenaitze, Nanwalek, Ninilchik, Port Graham, Tyonek, Salamatof, Seldovia and Qutekcak, although the numbers may skew due to the specificity of regional and tribal identifications, Woodhead said.

Of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States, 229 of the tribes reside in Alaska and about 114 Alaska tribes are represented in the district’s Title VI population.

“We are a microcosm of Alaska,” said Dusek. “You hear a lot of discussion out there about performances and students across the state of Alaska, and it’s not good but I will say that I’m very, very proud of our accomplishments and I believe that we’re continuing an upward trajectory… We’re going to keep going and we’re going to tighten these partnerships as best we can.”

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com

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