'Two and done'
program helps Alaska Teachers complete certification
Alaska teacher runs through the hills with her students in
the village of Tununak. Courtesy Lower Kuskokwim School District
When Isabelle Dyment first stood in front of a classroom, she
had no college degree, no teaching certificate and no experience.
That was five years ago, and Dyment was hired to teach kindergarten
at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, a Yup'ik immersion school in Bethel, Alaska.
A mother of seven and a fluent Yup'ik speaker, Dyment was terrified
that first day she became an Alaska teacher.
"I passed a test and was interviewed by a state administrator,"
she told ICMN. "But this was going to be my first time in front
of the classroom instructing the students, and I didn't know what
I was going to do."
Elitnaurvik School, where Alaska teacher Isabelle Dyment taught,
is one of the newest in the school district. Courtesy Lower
Kuskokwim School District
Dyment is one of about 60 associate teachers hired by the Bethel-based
Lower Kuskokwim School District
to fill vacancies in immersion or bilingual programs. Associate
teachers, or those who lack teaching certificates, usually come
from the communities in which they teach.
It's part of an effort to recruit and retain instructors in
a rural school district that, at 44,000 square miles, is roughly
the size of Ohio. The district, geographically the second-largest
in Alaska, serves 4,200 students from 22 remote villages (four of
which are on islands) accessible only by plane, boat or snowmobile.
Dyment, 45, grew up in the village of Toksook Bay, located on
an island off Alaska's southwestern coast. She earned a high school
diploma, took a couple of college courses and worked for a while
as a teacher's aide before focusing full-time on raising her children.
When she saw an advertisement for associate teachers five years
ago, Dyment decided to apply.
"Being a teacher has always been my dream," she said. "Ever
since I was in high school and had a teacher that inspired me, I
wanted to do it. When my kids got older, I decided this was something
I should try to do."
When she accepted the position, Dyment also agreed to work toward
a bachelor's degree in elementary education. Although the district
hires non-certified teachers, it expects them to get certified by
taking a minimum of nine college credits per year.
"These are people who are already fluent in Yup'ik," said Josh
Gill, director of personnel and student services at Lower Kuskokwim
School District. "They lack the formal training in methodologies
that comes with certification. Once they have that, they're that
village of Newtok, where Ayaprun Elitnaurvik School is located.
Courtesy Lower Kuskokwim School District
But the certification process was taking too long, Gill said.
Full-time associate teachers who doubled as part-time college students
still faced 10 to 12 years of education before receiving their bachelor's
degrees and teaching certificates.
To help cut that timeand remove other barriers to educationGill
introduced a program that allows associate teachers within two years
of earning a bachelor's degree to focus exclusively on their studies.
The program, called "two and done," covers Alaska teachers' tuition
costs and pays them stipends equivalent to their salaries for two
years while they finish their degrees.
"Consider the fact that most of these associate teachers have
families, children and homes to take care ofon top of jobs
where they're really already doing all the responsibilities of teachers,"
Gill said. "We need to remove any barriers to certification we can."
District officials are hoping that the "two and done" program
ultimately saves recruitment dollars. The district, which employs
400 Alaska teachers, hires between 40 and 60 every year, and it
spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit them from areas
across Alaska and the lower 48.
"As a district, we're constantly looking at ways to bring in
more teachers," Gill said. "If we take more of a retention approach
than recruitment, we can look locally, at the people who already
understand bush Alaska."
Home-grown teachers face a learning curve when they step into
the classroom, said Barbara Angaiak, the district's education specialist.
But it's not nearly as steep as it is for outsiders who are not
familiar with Yup'ik culture or the unique challenges of bush Alaskaand
who often don't stay long once they get there.
program in Bethel, Alaskapictured here from the airis
helping Alaska teachers remove barriers to education. Courtesy
Lower Kuskokwim School District
"The geography and weather here are a challenge for many teachers
who come here from the lower 48," Angaiak said. "They have to get
in a small plane or skiff to get to work; they have to learn new
ways to buy groceries and provide for themselves; they have to learn
a whole new culture. People coming here from other states or countries
often don't understand our district, but we solve that by hiring
people who have lived and worked in the region their whole lives."
Dyment was one of the first to sign up for the program, which
offers classes online through the University of Alaska Fairbanks
and in-person at the university's Bethel campus. She, along with
three other Alaska teachers in the Lower Kuskokwim School District,
will complete their first year of full-time studies this spring.
"The program is very beneficial because there are not a lot
of Yup'ik teachers," Dyment said. "To be able to understand the
culture first and then get certified second, you already know what
the expectations are. Growing up in these villages, we understand
the language and the culture. Now we can pass those on."