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