Cultural Ties Bring Academic Success for Alaska Native Students
Every afternoon, the Alaska Native Heritage Center is transformed.
Dozens of students from across Anchorage pour through the center’s doors, signing in, settling down with an after-school snack and preparing for an extra course of Alaska Native culture and history.
Caroline Wiseman is one of those students. A junior at Service High School and a three-year veteran of the ANHC after-school program, she’s seen firsthand how it helps push students to succeed.
“They definitely get to learn about their culture, which is probably the most important thing here,” she said, tucking a strand of curly dark hair behind her ear and preparing to join her classmates by the center’s main stage.
Program staff members agree. “High school can be a pretty cruel, brutal place,” said Steven Alvarez, director of cultural education at the center. “We want them to feel grounded in who they are and where they come from.”
In keeping with that mission, the after-school program offers four classes: art, dance, Native games and media.
Students choose one track to follow throughout the course of the program, and spend weeks jumping, kicking, carving, sewing and swaying their way to a better understanding of traditional Native culture.
On the dance floor, the instructor kept rhythm with a hand drum while Caroline and a handful of other students stepped back and forth, arms outstretched, leaning into the beat. Dressed in leggings, a t-shirt and stocking feet, Caroline helped lead the other dancers, standing at the front of the room and keeping count. “Step forward, shift your weight,” she told them, walking them through a simple warm-up routine and keeping count as the group stepped back and forth in unison.
Some, like Caroline, will take what they learn a step further and go on to become summer interns at the ANHC once the school year comes to a close. She said the program has been like a second home throughout her high school career. “The people who work here with me, they’re a lot of fun, they’re like a second family, sort of,” she said, grinning.
Down the hall from the dance floor, another group of students sat hunched over a table, sketching designs and learning how to etch them into pieces of silver. Program staff members said the art class usually attracts the more introverted students, and the class’s quiet concentration was a stark contrast to the music, laughter and steady drum beats of dancers.
One student said the program keeps him out of trouble, another girl in a bright purple hoody said she does it because of her love for art. Both agree there’s no place they’d rather be after the final bell rings every afternoon.
In another room off the same hallway, Austin Sumdun set his sights high.
Brushing his bangs out of his eyes and focusing on the leather ball swinging from a cord more than six feet off the ground, he ran for it, jumping and hitting it with both feet. “It’s just a warm up,” said the East High School senior.
The students in the Native games class were dressed in loose basketball shorts and t-shirts, and heavy metal music blared from a stereo in the corner of the room. There was little talking, and the screaming electric guitars were only interrupted by the thump of students’ feet landing on the hard wooden floor.
Sumdun and a handful of his friends took turns jumping for the ball, while several others sat on the floor in the corner of the room stretching. Piles of abandoned sweatshirts, school backpacks and water bottles lined the walls.
Even though he’s been practicing Native games since childhood, Sumdun said the after-school activities at ANHC are helping propel him to new levels. While many of his classmates participate in school sports or other activities, he said the Heritage Center program is all he needs, and a stepping-stone to his next goal: joining the U.S. Marine Corps.
“These games were created to help you with discipline, and getting to know your body’s physical limits,” he said, preparing to take another jump at the swinging leather target.
It’s a little higher this time.
It’s not just physical discipline that keeps him coming back: Instead, Sumdun said it’s the cultural ties. “I think it’s important because it defines who we are as people,” he said. “If we didn’t tell anybody who we were, then what culture would it be?”
For administrators with the Anchorage School District, those cultural ties bring another benefit: more than doubling graduation rates among participants. While Alaska Native students on average have a roughly 40 percent graduation rate, it’s nearly 90 percent for those who participate in ANHC after-school activities.
“I think it’s profound, because the group of students who have the lowest graduation rates are our Alaska Native students,” said ASD Superintendent Carol Comeau. She said the program is based on the idea that good grades go hand-in-hand with strong social ties. “If we only focus on academics and forget that other part of our lives, that other part of our kids, then I think we’re missing something,” she said.
For Caroline, Austin and dozens of other students, cultural grounding at the Alaska Native Heritage is sending them to new heights.