Life is Good: Educational Innovation in Rural Alaska

Last Updated: November 27, 2012

This article appeared in the November 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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At Whittier Community School in Alaska, 8th grader Joey has taken primary responsibility for the school’s hydroponic gardens and its two fish tanks “He loves fish,” says principal Stephanie Burgoon. Joey also manages a salmon roe project in cooperation with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game.

The gardens and fish tanks serve the school’s interdisciplinary curriculum. And Joey’s role? He took that on himself, a reflection of the school’s culture of student responsibility for their own learning and its commitment to empowering students to pursue their personal interests.

“We are passionate about working with students to find their strengths,” Burgoon insists. “When they find that interest, what they’re really good at, it gives them confidence that helps them in other areas.”

The school received the first hydroponic system several years ago when the police seized it in a marijuana bust. “We petitioned the court and asked if the school could have it for a project,” Burgoon explains. The system has proven itself a dynamic resource, as useful to math and social studies as it is to the sciences. And, it produces lettuce, bok choy, and Swiss chard, important in Whittier, where annual snowfall averages 40 feet and four months each year have no direct sunlight.

Last year several students had an idea for a better system. So they used Rubbermaid containers, pipe, and sheer ingenuity to build a second hydroponic system. They are currently running tests to see which system is more effective.

That kind of ownership and inventiveness, the goal of corporate innovation seminars and MBA programs, is a natural outgrowth of Whittier’s approaches.

With such a rich educational environment, it is no surprise that Whittier students do well.

Small and rural

The town of Whittier, located on Prince William Sound, was established by the U.S. Army during World War II. The area had long been a portage route, first for Chugach Indians and later as a passage for explorers and Gold Rush miners headed for Alaska’s interior.

Whittier’s 150 year-round residents work primarily in commercial fishing and freight, for state transportation authorities, and in the recreation and tourism industries that serve more than 700,000 summertime visitors.

“We are a ‘road community,’ ” says Burgoon, explaining that the town is accessible through a two and a half mile tunnel. The road distinguishes Whittier from the rural Alaska villages that can only be reached by plane. In those places, students attend one-room schools, take correspondence courses, or are home-schooled. So, Whittier Community School, with its 35 students in pre-K through 12th grade, is far from the smallest formal schooling arrangement in Alaska. Yet small size is an important aspect of its educational innovation.

Content competencies: academic and community

At the heart of the school’s academic program are ten content areas, five focused on academics and five developed 15 years ago when the school district asked residents: “what do you want your kids to be able to do?” The resulting community content areas are Community and Culture, Technology, Physical Education and Health, Personal Social Service/Leadership, and Career Development.

“These are not the Common Core, but standards developed by the district and aligned with Alaska state standards” Burgoon explains. Each academic area has levels with specific learning targets in each level. These are not tied directly to grade-level so students work in each content area at levels that are developmentally appropriate for them. “It’s very fluid, a continuum of knowledge and skills. Kids are really taking charge of their own education,” Burgoon adds.

Andrea Korbe, a Chugach School District board member and Whittier parent, says the standards “allow the school to meet each child at their level and to challenge them no matter where they are on the continuum.”

Teachers and students work together to decide what students will do to meet their learning targets. Burgoon describes how two students approached her with an idea for a video project for social studies. “As we talked it through, we figured out how the project could also meet their Technology, and Community and Culture targets.”

Sometimes students work individually. Often they work in groups, teaching each other as they explore a topic together.

“Students really take responsibility for learning, for themselves and each other,” Korbe emphasizes. “They are always being mentored and mentoring each other. You’ll hear them say, ‘So-and-so knows all about . . . , and I helped So-and-so with . . .’ They take a lot of pride in that.”

Whittier’s is an interdisciplinary approach that requires the school’s four teachers to work across grades and subject areas.

“The preparation is the hardest part,” says Burgoon, who teaches all students in grades six through 12, in addition to serving as principal. “Yet the beauty is the way everyone works together. It gives students a lot of power and in some ways takes the teacher out of the equation,” she explains. “And we are not bound by a bell; we can take advantage of those teachable moments.”

All four of Whittier’s teachers are highly qualified in all the subjects they teach. In addition, the school encourages students to use out-of-school opportunities to meet learning targets. And it supplements its curriculum with correspondence courses, distance learning, and University-based courses when needed. Students take the grade-level standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind. “Even though each student may be working on a different level in each subject, they all know what grade they are in,” laughs Burgoon. Most students take twelve years to complete the program, though some graduate in less time and some opt to take a little longer. “It’s all about what works best for each student,” Burgoon adds.

Annual school-wide theme

The curricular framework helps build community among students. And Whittier goes a step further to strengthen this essential aspect of its school culture.

Each year the school chooses a school-wide theme that all students study together for the entire year. “It’s another way for students to play on each others’ strengths,” says Burgoon. “Every student can talk to every other student about what they are learning.” The theme also helps connect disciplines and enhance curricular cohesiveness.

This year the theme is “Around the World in 180 Days.” Burgoon says that there’s a giant map in the cafeteria. “Every day while the students are eating breakfast, they talk about the regions they are studying.”

The school-wide theme creates spontaneous, student-led learning opportunities. For example, earlier this year while the school was studying South America, middle grade students were responsible for the rain forest while high schools investigated deforestation.

“But the high school students didn’t really know how to start because they didn’t know enough about the rain forest,” Burgoon explains. “So the middle school students helped them. And someone had the idea to build a rain forest inside the school. Everyone was learning, working together, helping each other figure out what they wanted it to be.”

Now Whittier’s hallway is a “rain forest” of trees, vines, a forest floor and canopy, and animals. One student made a kind of ‘Where’s Wally?’ so the pre-schoolers could find hidden animals hidden. “It was incredible to see the academic skills, teamwork, and process skills the students were using,” says Burgoon.

Last year’s theme was community. Students focused on providing services to Whittier. They launched a beautification project, helped businesses get ready to open for the summer season, and made fish-themed art that they sold to tourists.

During the “Life is Good” year, students started healthy eating and exercise programs that are still part of life in Whittier. Other themes have included "Whittier is Prettier" and "Go Green."

Teachers solicit input from students and choose the theme in their annual three-day planning retreat each April.

Individual Learning Plan

A final component of Whittier’s approach is the Individual Learning Plan (ILP), which explicitly empowers students to explore their personal interests. The ILP, which is not an IEP (the individualized programs required for students receiving special education services), is a plan to support students to pursue their individual topic and present a final project to community residents.

The projects are multi-disciplinary and largely self-designed. They help students discover their own strengths and passions and build their public presentation skills. By the project’s completion, the student may well be the community’s expert on the topic.

“Employers say they need people who can work in teams, find information on their own, and are self-starters,” says Burgoon. “We teach these processes throughout our curriculum. Our kids start doing this at a very young age.”

Life is also real

Whittier is not without its challenges. The school population is diverse, comprised of students from Asia, Samoa, the Philippines and other Pacific Islands, Athabaskan and Aleut Native Alaskans, and white students. It’s also surprisingly transient. Last year enrollment jumped from 18 to 35 students. Korbe says the percentage of students with learning challenges mirrors state averages.

Yet the strong sense of community, especially among students, helps to overcome some of these challenges. “The kids are very supportive of each other academically and socially. Even in play the kids model acceptance. They change the rules of their games so everyone can participate,” says Korbe.

That sense of community is one of several pieces Korbe sees as key to Whittier’s success. She also cites the commitment of the school district to work with teachers and communities and the ways that Whittier has implemented the district learning standards.

“The terms ‘differentiation’ and ‘personalization’ are buzzwords in education,” she says. “But at Whittier the standards system makes them relevant and applicable. It’s great to see kids come into their own.”

Korbe credits the success of Whittier’s approaches to its teachers, who are expected to be knowledgeable in a range of subject areas; flexible; resourceful; and willing to collaborate. “Teachers work really hard, but their work looks different here than it does in most schools,” she observes.

It was just these approaches that drew Burgoon to Whittier as a teacher, ten years ago. “I strive to be a dynamic teacher. I wanted the flexibility to teach the ways that are best for students, to trust my professional judgment,” she asserts. “There’s no reason we can’t meet all kids’ needs.”

Read more:

Television coverage of Whittier’s hydroponic program:

Whittier Community School’s Facebook page:

Read more from the November 2012
Rural Policy Matters.