Teachers say many students are behind from the very beginning. They're trying to fix that by pushing pre-school and early learning programs.
"We need to be able to get kids from birth all the way to the time they're 6, 7, 8 years old ,where they walk into the classroom and they are ready. And our kids now have a fighting chance against the rest of the country," Tuluksak principal Lance Jackson said to the group.
At the school in Akiachak, elementary students practice the alphabet.
Jackson says that's the first step.
"We need to develop our language skills and address our illiteracy problems before we can go on and do all these things. So basically we have to backdraft, or however you want to say that, backdate our issues and our education to help these kids go on," he said.
A display on the wall features students who have perfect attendance as a motivator to get them to come to class.
Low attendance is just another factor that contributes to the low student performance levels that are forcing the state to intervene.
"It puts an added pressure on the district and the support is support that is periodic rather than sustained over a long period of time," said Assistant Superintendent of the district, Diane George.
The state says its role is limited; it monitors and ensures compliance of federal regulations under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Larry LeDoux, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education says NCLB expects districts to achieve higher goals, which is proving to be a challenge.
"NCLB says go in and take over a school if they're not performing. They say perhaps replace the teachers or the principals, but you know, in a state where many of the villages have a history of an outside force coming in and taking over their education system, this is not perceived with a lot of affection," LeDoux said.
Hiring and keeping teachers in the village is another problem the district is working to solve.
"We're trying to develop consistency in the district so that regardless of turnover there's consistency in materials, consistency in programs and expectations; because that's one of the biggest challenges we face is with staff continuously turning over," George said.
To help address some of these challenges, a group of Alaskans took legal action.
Wasilla resident Kris Moore helped file a class action lawsuit demanding the state do more to help five underperforming districts, including Yupiit.
"It really is going back to breaking it down and starting over. Education funding is a volatile subject because it does comes down to the focus on the money; the focus should be on the kids," Moore said.
The judge ordered the state to follow a list of orders. Some include:
- A plan on how curriculum on tested subject areas will be taught
- A detailed individual remediation plan for each junior and senior high school student in the intervention districts
- A status update on efforts at the Yupiit school district.
The court orders are on hold for discussions.
But over the years, the state has provided district improvement plans and specialists.
LeDoux says that to be successful, communities will have to play a major role in educating its students.
"We need the communities to own what we're doing, so that we can cross-respect each other. If we do that, we can turn out some of the finest students in the world," he said.
Back in Tuluksak, elder Noah Andrew says as a tribal member, passing down tradition and values is essential, but he knows the communities are changing.
"It's good to learn both, but we need to concentrate with facts; with what is happening in the communities and expect them to pass those, not something foreign when you try to teach it to them, ‘This is how you live,'" Andrew said.
But the underlying questions remain.
"What is success? How do you integrate culture? How do you ensure that culture is passed on to the kids and at the same time ensure they have the academic skills to step into a Western world? How do you combine them both?" LeDoux said.
How do you balance two worlds? It's a question educators and communities have not yet answered, but both are taking steps to ensure education in rural Alaska can take off and students can rise to their full potential.
Contact Christine Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org