NCLB in Rural Alaska
SAVOONGA, Alaska — New federal law allows students to transfer from a failing school to a better one, at school-district expense. Chances are, pupils in this community on St. Lawrence Island won't take the offer.
The only other school on the island is a four-hour snowmobile ride away. A flight to Nome, on the mainland, costs $270 and means crossing 164 miles of Bering Sea.
After two days of traveling in rural Alaska last week, even Education Secretary Rod Paige conceded that's a tough commute.
"When you said 'rural' to me several days ago, it meant one thing," Paige said. "When you say it to me now, it means a different thing."
Escorted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Paige traveled north to see how the No Child Left Behind Act will play at 506 schools spread around a state more than twice the size of Texas.
The purpose of the law, signed last year by President Bush, is to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers. It sets strict qualifications for educators and lays out penalties for schools where students do not show adequate progress.
On May 5, Paige flew 440 miles west of Anchorage to Tuntutuliak, a Yup'ik Eskimo village with 377 residents. He said he had been to rural districts in Nebraska and the Dakotas but acknowledged he was "absolutely surprised" at what he saw in western Alaska.
Twenty percent of Alaska's schools have three or fewer teachers. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that only "highly qualified" teachers with a college degree or major teach eight core subjects.
Likewise, teacher aides must have the equivalent of two years of college to be considered highly qualified and to keep their jobs — a challenge where villagers' first language is not English. They're scrambling to meet the requirement with the help of distance classes offered by the University of Alaska.
No Child Left Behind penalizes schools that don't show sufficient yearly progress in test scores, and in some cases calls for replacing the staff entirely. Rural Alaska's problem is holding on to teachers and administrators more than a year. Savoonga and Tuntutuliak are in districts where turnover averages 25 to 30 percent annually.
"It's just impossible to keep programs going," said Tuntutuliak principal Pam Verner.
New teachers spend half the year adjusting to their new jobs and an unfamiliar culture, Verner said, and the lack of continuity is bound to affect test scores.
Most rural villages have a shortage of safe, clean housing, and school districts are expected to provide it for teachers. In Savoonga, special-education teacher Darlene Rinkes sleeps in her classroom and principal Dave Bauer lives in a school closet.
"I have room for a mattress and a desk and a chair, and that's it," he said. There's no room for his wife, who remains in Kansas, their former home.
Alaska has about a month to present its plan for meeting the No Child Left Behind requirements. At the end of his trip, Paige said he was confident that federal and state officials can agree on a course of action that Alaska can work with.
Rural Schools in Alaska lab behind federal plan
May 14, 2003
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES