Alaska’s higher education leaders are overhauling their operations in an effort to ultimately improve the outcomes of the state’s youngest students.
The University of Alaska System debuted its College of Education this month, which system President Jim Johnsen hopes will provide better structure to teacher education programs statewide and eventually help the UA produce more homegrown teachers to fill vacancies in school districts statewide.
“I can’t say it enough, teachers are the single most important job in our state and in our society,” Johnsen stressed in an interview. “The touch or touched every single person in our state and their purpose, more than any other occupation in our society, is to support our people and to advance our people.”
Individuals with a solid educational background add to a skilled workforce, are more culturally aware, earn higher incomes, are less likely to be incarcerated and live healthier lives, Johnsen added.
“It’s (the middle of) summer, but students seeking higher education are making plans for fall. The university’s new Alaska College of Education aims to train more state residents to take teaching jobs here. The idea is to keep good teachers in rural Alaska communities.”
So began a round-robin discussion on July 24, when President Jim Johnsen and College of Education Executive Dean Steve Atwater joined host Lori Townsend on Alaska Public Radio Network’s Talk of Alaska to discuss the university’s goal to recruit and educate more teachers. The discussion also included Kameron Perez-Verdia, president/CEO of Alaska Humanities Forum.
“What precipitated [the Alaska College of Education] was the regents’ recognition that this is a critically important issue and our challenges…You are looking at the single most important job in our state,” Johnsen said.
Alaska faces a range of obstacles as the university endeavors to educate more Alaska teachers. Currently 70 percent of teachers hired each year for Alaska school districts come from outside the state and turnover, especially in rural Alaska, is as high as 50 percent annually. Teachers who come to rural Alaska from outside the state are often unprepared to understand cultural differences and infrastructure challenges, and the effects of decades of trauma from forced assimilation and abuse of Alaska Native students in schools are still present. The effects of these obstacles are costly, both in the financial cost of constant teacher recruitment and the impact to students who witness teachers regularly cycling in and out of their schools.
Dillingham Elementary School fourth-grade teacher, Andrew Berkoski, received a BP 2018 Teachers of Excellence award.
“Fourth-grade is my favorite age to teach,” said Berkowski, who has been doing so for five years. “I have taught from fourth all the way through the university level. And fourth-graders are by far my favorite. Like I always say, the cement is still wet, they’re still very moldable. They’re fun. They get things quickly, and it’s never a dull moment.”
Alaska After School Hero
Deanna Baier received the Alaska After School Hero award for her work as a Bristol Bay 4-H Coordinator and Tribal Indian Child Welfare worker. Baier has been working with Bristol Bay 4-H since 2014. She has expanded the program to multiple locations in Bristol Bay, and she just opened a new location in Anchorage.
“The 4-H activities provide positive prevention and wellness activities for kids to keep them safe, and to keep them out of trouble,” said Baier. “And I also believe in the power of five, which is that each successful youth has five positive adults that they can turn to in crisis or whenever they need help or assistance. And so the 4-H program helps to provide those.”
Bristol Bay 4-H is an extracurricular club for youth from kindergarten through 12th grade, and Baier says that close to 100 kids are currently enrolled. She expects that number to jump during the summer culture camps.
“I think from the culture camps the kids get a sense of community,” Baier explained. “You have a bunch of kids that may not normally hang out or work together come together for a month and participate in cultural activities such as native dancing, arts and crafts and drumming. The kids are able to make dance fans and headdresses.”
For a week in late April, College of Education graduate students head to Newhalen School for the Lake and Peninsula School District’s annual Academic Athletic (AA) meet. The decades-old tradition closes out each school year, bringing 7th through 12th graders together from across the 13-school district for a packed week of events, including NYO qualifiers and a career fair.
During the AA meet, Newhalen School — overlooking the shores of Lake Iliamna — is a humming hive of teenage energy. Students sleep in the classrooms at night. Prom dresses hang from the library loft and basketballs echo through the gym. Friends hang out in the hallway between classes, with their duffel bags stuffed beneath trophy cases.
The University of Alaska is now accepting applications for the President’s Teach for Alaska Scholarship. The scholarship is in its second year and is open to any incoming undergraduate student who plans to major in education at any University of Alaska campus.
“Teachers have an immeasurable impact on the lives of our young people and we want to help the career goals of an aspiring future educator,” said UA President Jim Johnsen. “The scholarship is an important component of our emphasis on teacher education.”
The importance of cultivating the next generation of educators was emphasized by the UA Board of Regents during its March meeting in formally naming the Alaska College of Education and adopting a new organizational structure that emphasizes collaboration between teacher education programs at all three universities. Next steps include selecting an executive dean to lead the college.
The newly formed Alaska College of Education, its leadership and the scholarship are all part of the university’s plan to increase the number of teachers it prepares for Alaska’s schools.
The academic scholarship will be awarded to one applicant who is enrolled as a first-time undergraduate student and who plans to pursue a four-year degree in education. The recipient will receive $1,500 each semester for four years to attend any University of Alaska campus.
Those interested must already have applied for admission to UA and must submit both a short video and short essay explaining why they plan to pursue a degree in teacher education or what they hope to accomplish as a teacher, along with two letters of recommendation. The scholarship deadline is May 1. For information on eligibility or to apply, visit www.alaska.edu/learntoteach.
The Teach for Alaska Scholarship is funded by the university’s Land Grant Trust Endowment, which allocates funding each year for the UA Scholars program and for discretionary scholarships awarded by the university president. The endowment receives revenue from property sales and resource development — timber, gravel, gas leases, and mining — conducted on Trust lands.