Cultural Ties Bring Academic Success for Alaska Native Students
After-school program includes traditional instruction, resulting in a massive increase in graduation rates
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.