It’s time to make a real investment in culturally responsive education

April 30, 2019 | ADN | Danielle Riha (Opinion)

As a teacher at Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, I’ve experienced first-hand the transformational experience that culturally sensitive curricula can provide for Anchorage’s Native students. Native students across Alaska and beyond deserve access to a quality public school that speaks to their unique identity and history, and when teachers are empowered to use culturally responsive curricula and traditional Native teaching methods, great things happen – and I see it in my classroom every day.

But we have a problem facing our state, and our district. Although the Anchorage School District has the most ethnically diverse students in the United States, with over 100 languages spoken in student homes, Alaska Native students score lower on standardized tests than any other demographic in the state. Far too many teachers, policy makers and administrators are not effectively practicing culturally responsive teaching and do not utilize cultural standards for teaching and evaluation.

As the conversation around the quality of education and level of school funding in our state proceeds, it’s time for Alaskans to recognize the importance of investing in education that prioritizes culturally sensitive curricula, preserves Alaska’s history and ensures that we are providing educational experiences that speaks to all of our student populations.

That requires an education that is intellectually challenging, builds core character traits, identifies with community values and speaks to the individual experiences of the students themselves.

At the end of the day, the goal of our school is to set young people up for a lifetime of success — in college, their career and in life. I’ve had the privilege to be a part of originating Alaska’s only Title I charter school and use the flexibility that our charter school status provides to develop programs like Culture Week, which today is a community-wide effort to connect students to community and heritage by inviting indigenous artists and subsistence specialists to teach our students using traditional methods and authentic materials.

Programs like these are too few and far between in Alaska. In our state, charter schools are part of the public-school system and are particularly well-equipped to deliver this because of the freedom given to innovate, teach holistically, and go the extra mile for students. We know a one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t work. It’s time to ask ourselves: How can we expand these programs and opportunities to all classrooms? The answer is certainly not budget cuts and inequitable funding.

It’s important to remember that culturally responsive curricula does not mean an education for only one type of student – the lessons transcend race, social economic background and geographic location. The methods we use at Alaska Native Cultural Charter School extend from job preparation and resume-building, learning about the real world by studying Native corporations, laws and current issues, or participating in the Alaska Federation of Natives Elder and Youth Conference, where students have created several resolutions for the state, become state representatives for their regions and lead lectures on the importance of culture in their curriculum.

The purpose of the public education system is to give each child the tools and skills they need for a successful life. That is exactly what we do at Alaska Native Cultural Charter School. Schools like mine are doing our best to give Native students an education that speaks to their community’s history and identity, rather than forcing them into classrooms that minimize both. I’m proud of the work we do, day in and day out, to set our children up for success. It’s time for Alaska’s leaders to recognize that to invest in our future, we need to invest in our history, community and culture.

Danielle Riha is Alaska’s 2018 Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year Award. She was a founding teacher at Alaska Native Cultural Charter school in Anchorage.

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