The annual turnover rate in rural Alaskan schools can be as high as 35%, compared with urban rates as low as 5%. A new program in rural Alaska seeks to halt this trend through a new program that pairs rural schools with big-city counterparts. Funded by a federal grant of nearly $2 million to launch cultural immersion camps for incoming teachers, the three-year program is an offshoot of the Rose Urban Rural Exchange program (RUREP).
The camps are intended to introduce urban educators to rural and Native Alaskan life and to prepare teachers to enter communities that may have a historical distrust of outsiders. Many Native Alaskan villages have collective memories of boarding schools that sought to dismantle indigenous cultures. Teachers will also be paired with a master-teacher to apply what they have learned into classroom activities and lesson plans.
Besides geographic isolation, other factors contributing to the high turnover rate is the soaring cost of living and the lower standardized test scores often found in rural areas. This makes the pressure on teachers to improve student performance even more pronounced, and with students’ economic and cultural factors affecting attendance, the stress can simply be too much.
The cultural immersion program may have a positive impact on teacher attrition. “It’ll introduce new teachers to cultures and values, getting folks to understand that different values aren’t wrong,” says Mike Dunleavy, director of Alaska Teacher Placement. “Once they understand, they can relate to the folks they’re trying to teach.”
The first camps will be held next summer for 30 teachers. As of now, organizers are unsure of where the camps will be held, but say that there will be at least one camp in each of the two pilot districts. Though funding is only guaranteed for the next three years, it is hoped that the camps could become a permanent fixture in Alaska’s teacher preparation/professional development offerings.
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