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KIBSD strives to incorporate tradition, culture into curriculum

KIBSD strives to incorporate tradition, culture into curriculum

By Noelle H. Lowery

Kodiak Island has a heritage and history rich with traditions from the many cultures that have shaped its existence. From the Alutiiq people to Russian settlers to the more recent Filipino immigrant community, all of these cultures have left an indelible impression on what it means to be Kodiakan.
That is why Kodiak Island Borough School District has begun the process of incorporating the island’s cultural traditions into its classroom curriculum. Thanks to the “Culturally Responsive Embedded Social Emotional Learning” (CRESEL) grant, KIBSD began a community conversation this spring focusing on how the district can work with community stakeholders and culture bearers to create and advance a local education model that brings together the strengths from both Native and western education ideologies to benefit Kodiak’s children.
With the help of the Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) and First Alaskans Institute, KIBSD officials held its first CRESEL community forums at Main and North Star elementary schools and Akhiok School last month.

“When you are talking about the culture of Kodiak, it is important to say cultures; Kodiak has become a melting pot,” explains Ron Bryant, KIBSD’s director of school and student services. “We are so diverse here, and that is one of the reasons we are having these community conversations. We want to know what is important to the community and what values Kodiak considers to be important.”

Social and Emotional Learning
According to researchers, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) helps students develop a range of skills necessary to functioning well in the classroom, in the community and in life. It encompasses five domains: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills. It is believed that helping students develop a sense of self will ultimately help them better manage their emotions, communicate and resolve conflicts nonviolently.

Infusing SEL with cultural considerations — CRESEL — adds classroom curriculum content that is relevant to diverse students’ lives.  It makes compatible the behavioral norms of schools and students’ home cultures.  It is inclusive of the language of instruction and students’ home language, and it connects classroom curriculum and the traditional teaching methods familiar to students.

In Alaska, CRESEL took on new life when the AASB and its Initiative for Community Engagement (ICE) was awarded a U.S. Department of Education Innovation and Improvement grant. The AASB sought the grant in response to the high rates at which Alaska’s Rural Native students are leaving school, “in part, because of cross-cultural disconnect and the inability to find meaning in culturally dissonant classrooms.”
According to Lori Grassgreen, AASB’s director of Alaska ICE, AASB’s CRESEL project brings together the AASB with seven culturally-distinct school districts — Nome Public Schools and Bering Strait, Hydaburg City, Kuspuk, Kodiak, Lower Yukon, and Sitka — and First Alaskans Institute, a non-profit foundation dedicated to developing the capacities of Alaska Natives and their communities to meet the educational, economic and social challenges of the future. The goal: To improve culturally responsive social, emotional, academic and behavioral outcomes for Alaskan students.
“This project fits right in with our work,” says Heather Xiláay Gatti, First Alaskans Institute’s indigenous research assistant. “We are convening and cataloging these community conversations, and trying to get everyone in the room creating a level playing field. There is a shared responsibility to make sure that every student is succeeding.”
In the project’s first year, all participating school districts hired and trained an SEL Champion, who with district leadership completed local SEL plans to look at culturally responsive school environments, instruction, modeling, infrastructure and practice opportunities for SEL. Each district has developed specific action items and developed culturally-specific SEL standards and support policies.
Additionally, community conversations began in five districts, including Kodiak. Grassgreen describes the process: “We are looking at the cultures that are part of these communities, and asking what it looks like to have them embedded in a district and part of the community. What does the community think it would look like? What would it look like to be culturally responsive in a district? What does it look like in each village?”
“After each of the conversations, we harvest the information and use it for planning and creating a wish list for the communities,” she adds.
CRESEL on Kodiak

With seven village schools and multiple cultural influences felt throughout each of the six town schools, creating a CRESEL program in Kodiak is an important endeavor. KIBSD’s CRESEL program has established the following SEL priorities:

  • To establish district and school infrastructure to support social and emotional learning.
  • To increase connectedness of KIBSD staff with each other, with families, with community leaders and with students. 
  • To increase opportunities to develop and use social and emotional learning and employability skills. 
  • To establish thriving student-led social and emotional learning environments. 

Key outcomes of Kodiak’s project include:

  • Increase Communication, Connection and Collaboration for SEL and Cultural Integration 
  • Increase Opportunities for Staff and Students to Consistently Use and Model SEL 
  • Enhance Partnership with Parents and Across District to Support SEL and Thriving Students 
  • Increase Student and Staff Connectedness Within Schools, Community, and Across the District
  • Increase District Leadership and Support Structures for SEL Practice & Teaching 
  • Increase Unity and Sense of Belonging Among Students 
  • Increase Student Leadership, Decision Making and Peer Mentoring for SEL 
According to Bryant, KIBSD began implementing CRESEL in five schools this year — Main Elementary, North Star Elementary, Kodiak High School, Chiniak School and Akhiok School — and will continue with five more schools next year. Additional community conversations will be held next spring, and each village school will have its own conversation and program.

“One thing that we’ve seen is that the staff is able to take the information and inform and adapt some of the social emotional learning standards and create concrete ways that it fits into planning,” notes Grassgreen.

The initial community conversations at Main, North Star and Akhiok schools identified strengths and weaknesses found in each school with regard to the role played by culture and tradition in the education of students. Community members also discussed the ways in which they felt the school conflicted with Native ways of life and in what ways they felt the two were aligned. Finally, the conversations focused on how schools can be strengthened through the incorporation of Alutiiq values, as well as what the next steps are to begin the process.

Though the CRESEL work has just begun, Bryant, Grassgreen and Xiláay Gatti all agree the foundational steps have been fruitful. “We are asking what the areas are in which we can get meaningful work done,” says Xiláay Gatti. “In Kodiak, if the district is trying to teach Alutiiq lessons, then it helps to have community members as part of the conversation.”

“We are pulling out themes from the conversations across sites, and it is clear people do care about their values being infused into their schools,” adds Grassgreen. “If we don’t support kids universally in ways that make sense for their communities, it will give them a disadvantage.”