With December snow covering their school building, Wrangell High School students talk together before the first bell rings.
Summary: With help from the Alaska Association of School Boards, this community came together to help their kids succeed acacemically. Using a specific program they call "ICE" coupled with a program using forty building blocks for young people to help them become healthy, caring, and successful adults.
AK: Swimming with the salmon, kids learn through community engagement
AK: Community connects with Kodiak High School
AK: 40 Developmental Assets-a framework for supporting children and communities
Accessible only by boat and plane, Wrangell is a remote little town tucked away on a rugged green island, carved out ages ago by the glaciers in southeast Alaska. Wrangell (population 2,100) is a place with no stop lights; where you make sure to buy your milk on Friday because the store may run out before the barge arrives on Monday. High school sports teams going to out-of-town competitions must hop on a plane or a ferry, be away four or five days, and stay overnight as guests in their competitors’ homes. They return the favor when the opponents come to town.
While the roads are few, Alaska’s distances are immense. If you cut Alaska in half, both halves would still be larger than Texas. But the state’s total population is only 660,000. Scattered in this vastness are rural communities like Wrangell, many of which scrape to make ends meet. “Yet each has its own strengths and resources that can be energized and enlisted to support kids,” says Sally Rue, a former local school board member in Juneau. In 2003, Rue became director of the Alaska Initiative for Community Engagement (ICE), the community engagement component of Quality Schools/Quality Students (QS2), a school improvement service overseen by the Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB). Says Rue, “We help communities recognize the strengths they do have.”
During one chilly winter week in 1994, every one of the 900-plus homes in Wrangell got a phone call asking a question. No product sales pitch this time. Just a point-blank question from neighbors they knew, “What can YOU do to make our kids feel valued?”
Making kids feel valued
A group of Wrangell citizens and school board members had gotten energized by the idea of community involvement as a way to strengthen student achievement. As a result, they wound up dividing all the phone numbers in their local phone book to take turns calling their fellow townspeople.
“It didn’t have to be something big—our point was, everybody could make a difference,” remembers one of the callers. “You can be a retired fisherman who sits on a boat, but when you see a kid on the dock fishing, you can talk about tying knots, and you can make a connection. Even if you were ninety-eight, you got call.”
Wrangell citizens started responding in ways that—collectively—began knitting the community more tightly to its young people. A woman in a wheelchair said she couldn’t get out much but would write a congratulatory note to every student who made the honor roll (she’s still writing). A local artist painted Wolf Paws (mascot signs) to recognize businesses that contributed to Wrangell schools.
Such fledgling efforts to focus a community on its kids were gathering steam when the local pulp mill, one of the biggest employers in town, closed. Morale sank. Unemployment jumped. Over the next few years, Wrangell’s population dropped by a third, as families despaired of finding new jobs and moved away. There were cascading effects as businesses like the machine shop downsized. The elementary school lost half its students.
“Wrangell could have cycled downward, but they didn’t,” recalls Sharon Young, AASB associate executive director. As Wrangell spent a decade trying to rebound economically, its leaders also kept focused on getting adults to recognize how they could relate to kids and help young people to develop the internal and external attributes they need to succeed (called the 40 Developmental Assets).
Help from the Alaska Association of School Boards
Under the umbrella of Alaska ICE, Wrangell became a partner in QS2, which includes a big element of community involvement. Over the years in Wrangell, community involvement has helped to boost student achievement. The gap narrowed between the test scores of Alaska Native students (Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts) and white students. Reading scores improved. School spirit came back—where once the volleyball team might have had eight spectators at a game, there soon was an actual cheering section. “After the mill closed, there was a lot of fighting, moodiness, depression,” remembers high school principal Monty Buness. “Assets gave us a sense of hope.” Adds ICE community engagement specialist Kem Haggard, “It was a very conscious effort to build assets into our children and to say 'yes, our community IS there for our kids.' We focused on the positive instead of the negative.”
Today a long list could be reeled off about how Wrangell connects to its students and encourages them to become responsible citizens:
Alaska Marine Lines buys space in the Sentinel newspaper to spotlight a high school senior each week.
Before the district goes to Juneau to lobby on education issues, superintendent Susan Sciabbarrasi goes over the district’s budget with the high school student council. Students apply to accompany school board members to the capital, and Sciabbarrasi says, “The students really know their stuff. Legislators listen to them.”
A local church sponsored an old-fashioned drive-in movie theater for little kids; families painted large cardboard boxes to make the “cars” that children sat in. (One teenager, hearing that not all parents would be participating, constructed a giant Hummer that accommodated five kids.)
Peter Helgeson, general manager of radio station KSTK, invited teenagers to participate in making three videos, such as one on totem pole restoration, as a part of their curriculum. “We trained them to do interviews, take videos, do microfiche research. I had predisposed notions of how it was going to be. They thought [my approach] was boring. I learned to let THEM drive it.”
In 2000, Wrangell started student-led parent-teacher conferences, in which students do the preparation and presentation of their own academic strengths and weaknesses.
The Interagency Team (police, fire, hospital, behavioral health officials, tribal leaders, and others) coordinates their efforts to support young people.
“Getting parents to school was our hardest problem,” says former school board chair Janell Privett, acknowledged by many as a leader behind the intensified community engagement. Soon Wrangell schools featured Grandparents Day, math day, a Hooligan fair—all efforts to help adults connect with kids.
Wrangell’s standardized test scores are strong. In terms of requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Wrangell has met AYP (adequate yearly progress) as a district and for all subgroups (e.g., economically disadvantaged, ethnic, disabled); 90 percent of students showed proficiency in language arts and 82 percent in math in 2006.
Wrangell also measured the asset levels for its youth, both in 1997 and in 2004, and found that over time, many deficit and risky behaviors decreased. Use of alcohol dropped 21 percent, for instance, and sexual activity dropped 30 percent.*
While many families are classified as economically disadvantaged (e.g., 60 percent of the elementary school students), Wrangell may soon be looking up. It is building a new harbor, fish canneries are retooling, and the city just put in a new belt freezer for salmon. In the past two years, sales tax revenues have increased, and there is “reason for mild optimism,” says Jeff Jabusch, city finance manager.
“We still have our problems—life is life,” acknowledges community leader Privett, “but our hope is to give students a way to go through it, and understand what responsibility is, and consequences.” For the most part, kids seem to be getting the message—and applying it. For their senior project, for instance, two students who are junior emergency medical technicians took a boat with a Global Positioning System (GPS) to remote areas and recorded who lived where using their GPS coordinates so they could all be located in case of emergency.
Assets: Building blocks for young people
Hundreds of youngsters and adults flock to the annual Kodiak Assets Fair each April. In Dillingham, kids scramble to win an Assets Scavenger Hunt. The 40 Developmental Assets, each emblazoned on a huge banner, hang around Dillingham at the Wells Fargo bank, the police department, even the board room at school district headquarters.
What are these "assets" that have Alaska communities talking and working together? Consider them as the forty building blocks for young people to become healthy, caring, and successful adults. External Assets—such as feeling support from caring adults and peers, having useful roles in the community, or using free time constructively—are provided by family, school, and community. For instance, the seventeenth Asset says, “Youth is involved in creative and cultural activities three or more hours a week.” Internal Assets include having good social skills or feeling motivated to learn. For example, the thirty-sixth Asset says, “Youth seeks to resolve conflict without resorting to violence.”
The more Assets a young person has, the more likely he is to succeed in school and later on as a capable, productive citizen. The fewer assets a young person has, the more likely he is to be involved with drugs, alcohol, or other risky behaviors. Although such conclusions seem commonsense, the connection has been made by research from the Search Institute in Minnesota, which has conducted training on the Assets framework for communities throughout the United States.
Many communities have surveyed their teenagers to see how many of the 40 Developmental Assets they have. The results are sometimes distressing: High percentages of kids who report feeling depressed or suicidal, engaging in frequent sexual behavior, or not feeling connected to school. However, seeing this benchmark data gives a community tangible evidence and often can be the impetus for conversation.
Every child and teen needs positive connections with many supportive adults and peers. “It’s not a lack of people who desire to help, just linking up with them,” says Kathy McLinn, who leads community engagement efforts in Dillingham. The 40 Developmental Assets give individuals and groups a framework for helping young people thrive. Asset-building is about helping adults build good relationships with children and teenagers.
But asset-building doesn’t require extraordinary skills. Adults can improve how they relate to young people in many simple ways: Looking a teenage retail clerk in the eye and smiling while making a purchase, or asking what young people think when one’s local club or church is making a decision.
Researchers at the Search Institute in Minnesota developed the 40 Developmental Assets after surveying more than 500,000 seventh through twelfth graders from 1989 to 2000, asking detailed questions about their life experiences. Researchers also surveyed more than 200,000 sixth through twelfth graders and counted the number of Assets they reported. Most teens had fewer than twenty-one. About 35 percent had between twenty-one and thirty.
The Alaska Initiative for Community Engagement (ICE) works in schools, with tribes, and with entire communities to promote the shared responsibility of all members of the community to build Assets in young people, thus helping to nurture successful adults. The aim is to assist Alaskans in creating a personal web of support for every young person.
There are three important factors of ICE.
- The process is ongoing. Every stage of a child's development is important. Each one builds on experiences from the previous stage.
- Small things count. Simple, everyday actions can acknowledge a child's presence and invite contribution. Over time these small things provide a solid foundation for growth and support.
- Repetition is good. Youth need to hear, see, and experience positive messages often and from a lot of different people.
Asset-building also plays a significant role in students’ academic achievement:
- Research indicates that students whose levels of developmental assets remained stable or increased had significantly higher grade-point averages three years later than students whose assets declined (Search Institute 2003).
- Students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds with high levels of assets (thirty to forty) are about five to twelve times as likely as those with few assets (zero to ten) to be successful in school.
- Low-income students who experience more developmental assets seem much more likely to do well in school than low-income students who do not experience many developmental assets.
Scales, P. C., & Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2003). Boosting student achievement: New research on the power of developmental assets. Search Institute Insights & Evidence.
Community engagement has also helped progress statewide. AASB executive director Carl Rose says, “The challenge is to welcome people in [to schools], to energize people. Who shows up? Families, people involved in the tribal organizations, business people, elders. You find the gems, the diamonds in the rough. We have evolved in ways we never imagined because of their talents.”
Out of fifty-three Alaska districts, eighteen have been QS2/ICE partners. Looking at academic statistics for 2004 and 2006, the QS2/ICE districts showed higher proficiency gains than the state overall on reading, writing, and math. “Although there is still a gap between Native and all students in achievement, QS2 districts are making significant gains on closing that gap,” says Rue. “And the good news is that overall, QS2 districts are making faster progress than the statewide average.”
“We couldn’t have that big a footprint without community involvement all over the state,” notes Rose. The community involvement push came about in the early 1990s, he explains, because of the state AASB board. “Prior to that, the board had been more of a counterpoint to the teacher’s union. But board members had their fill of fighting with the union. They wanted to focus on the future and saw a vision of something better.”
In 1995, the AASB board took funds from reserve and hired a community engagement director; in 1997, it adopted the Assets model (see sidebar). In 1999, AASB got a $14 million federal grant over seven years, which it channeled into partnerships with local districts. Wrangell, for instance, received $50,632 over three years.
The community engagement focus, ICE, helps local districts with tools and encouragement, such as a practical handbook, Helping Kids Succeed—Alaskan Style. The “Alaskan-style” caveat is important. AASB’s leaders wanted something written by and for Alaskans who understood the unique challenges and delights of living here.
This is, after all, Alaska—where the Wrangell high school government teacher also takes tourists bear-watching in summers, and where teenagers working long hours on a seine boat for the summer can make enough money to buy a decent car or truck.
Helping Kids Succeed—Alaskan Style lists simple things that any person can do to build assets. Its framework is an Alaskan context with traditional Alaskan cultures. From the village of Kluti-Kaah (population 450), for instance, comes this advice on asset number twenty-eight—Integrity: “Subsistence skills directly translate into life skills. When you teach your children to hunt, to prepare the catch, to treat the catch with respect, and to share the catch, you are teaching them how to live life. The hunt teaches us to delay gratification, to persevere, to prepare, and to walk with integrity.”
“We have such a unique population here,” says AASB’s Young, “we wanted to acknowledge and honor the traditional ways, including Alaska Native people.”
Dillingham, an isolated commercial fishing hub on Alaska’s southwestern edge, draws on its Yu’pik Eskimo heritage. Dillingham schools are about 80 percent Alaska Native. With a population around 2,500, there’s no movie theater or mall here. On the other hand, in how many communities in the lower-forty-eight do teenagers get to hunt caribou in winter or watch dog-sled races in March?
“One of our goals is to create a cultural activity for kids once a month,” says Kathy McLinn, Dillingham’s ICE community engagement advocate. One September, thirty-five eighth graders piled on a bus with community members and Yu’pik elders to go berry-picking in the tundra. After collecting plump blueberries, cranberries, and blackberries, “We came back to the home ec room and the parents and grandmas helped us learn how to do jam,” says fourteen year-old Jacob Nelson. “We cleaned the berries in big pots of water, then smushed them up with potato smashers and added sugar.”
Bearing gift jars of jam, the teenagers then visited Grandma’s House, a group home for the elderly, to sit and talk with Yu’pik elders. The encounter across generations was awkward for some at first, but it helped to break the ice when the elders told stories of “old times, when they didn’t have stores or technology,” recalls Chelsey Kasayulie, thirteen. “We learn to show respect for the culture.”
Dillingham became a QS2/ICE partner in 2005. To boost community awareness, kids nominated adults who had gone above-and-beyond for them. These everyday heroes—neighbors, coaches, a man who helped with the rifle club—were celebrated in the newspaper and on radio station KDLG.
“We’re hoping to see kids more involved with significant adults,” says Dillingham superintendent Arne Watland. That, in turn, should help to improve student achievement, starting with attendance that has been “soft."
"[Attendance is] enthusiastic in elementary school, but wears off in middle school. [Thanks to QS2/ICE] we know how much it helps to bring the community into the school and the school out into the community,” says Watland.
*Source: Attitudes and Behaviors Survey
Alaska Initiative for Community Engagement
1111 W. 9th St.
Juneau, AK 99801
Web site: www.alaskaice.org/
AK: swimming with the salmon, kids learn through community engagement
AK: Community connects with Kodiak High School
AK: Developmental Assets-a framework for supporting children and communities
This story was written by Elaine Furlow, a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.
Posted: February 22, 2007
©2007 Center for Public Education