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2006 Alaska Native Student Vitality

Two former First Alaskans Institute interns have taken on the task of analyzing the characteristics of culturally sensitive educational systems that serve Native students effectively. The researchers are Malia Villegas (Alutiiq), who holds an M.Ed. degree and is currently a Ph.D candidate at Harvard, and Rebecca Prieto (Inupiaq), who holds Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Psychology and is an M.S. candidate at University of Alaska Anchorage.

They have interviewed 45 Native leaders, legislators, state officials, school district staffs and community members in order to produce their Alaska Native Student Vitality report. The publication summarizes the components of Native student success in public schools by answering four important questions:What are useful student outcomes and measures of success?

The report notes that data on Native education rarely highlight the successes and capabilities of Native students and their communities. Instead, we see information that is almost exclusively about academic shortfalls. Experts concentrate on why Native students cannot keep up with their non-Native peers – based on the unspoken assumption that students bear sole responsibility for their successes or failures in school. Rather, we should focus on what Native families and communities expect of their students and schools in order to create a better way of supporting both.

Most people who answered about Native expectations focused on preparing students to live in two worlds, to succeed in Western cultures and economies, and to thrive as human beings by more traditional values. Other responses include taking responsibility for supporting Native academic success, recognizing that education is a joint venture between students, families, schools and local communities.

The characteristics of effective schools mirror the expectations of the Native community, centered on individual student needs, with emphasis on relationship development beyond school. They provide students with opportunities to take ownership of their own learning, to develop partnerships and to provide encouragement. Unless all participants will work to change the system itself, the data will not change either.

The report was supported by a grant from the Denali Commission and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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Alaska Native Student Vitality Report
This study came about as frustrations surfaced in the Alaska Native and research communities around the use of measures that are limited to factors such as school attendance, standardized test scores, and high school graduation and dropout rates to define Alaska Native student success.