Mar 01 2013
Many students on St. Lawrence–a remnant of the land bridge that spanned the Bering Strait thousands of years ago with a current population of less than 1,400–say they want to go to college. But half of them drop out of high school, and only 2 percent graduate from college. The benefits of a degree can seem remote here. Families live a subsistence lifestyle, hunting walruses, seals, and whales in the spring, and gathering berries in the summer. The largest employer is the school system (according to the census, 37 percent of workers in Savoonga are in education); otherwise, there are only a handful of jobs in fishing, oil, and the airlines that connect the island to the mainland. More than a quarter of adults are unemployed.
Across the entire country, one of the most intractable problems in public education is how to fix Native American schools. Beginning in 1928, the federal government has issued scathing reports about the state of Native education and intervened periodically with new programs and reforms. None of them have made much difference. The high school dropout rate of Native students is about 12 percent, higher than that of blacks (8 percent) and of whites (5 percent). Only 39 percent of those who go to college complete a college degree in six years compared to 62 percent of whites and 69 percent of Asians. And while Hispanic and black students have been gaining ground in math and reading, scores for Native students have stagnated over the past decade. In the case of Alaska Natives, they’ve fallen.
Last year, the Obama administration declared a crisis in Native schools and promised new ideas to improve them. In October, the Department of Education announced a $2 million for a nationwide pilot program to help tribal agencies exert more control over their schools. “Tribal leaders, teachers, and parents are best suited to identify and address the needs of their children,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, when announcing the small grant. “Tribal communities deserve to play a greater role in providing American Indian and Alaska Native students with the tools and support they need to be successful in school and beyond.” The program is divvying up the $2 million through competitive grants to tribal agencies and states that propose new ways to improve Native schools.