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Pagosan commutes to work ... to Alaska

When local resident Arlie Swett leaves her home to go to work, she has what might well be the longest, most circuitous route of anyone in Archuleta County.

For one week every other month, she leaves her Pagosa Springs home and travels via a minimum of four plane rides to remote Alaskan villages along the Yukon River in southwest Alaska.

She is an employee of the Alaska State Department of Education, and travels there as a content area specialist in reading. She works with the teachers of 11 villages in the Lower Yukon School District, in accordance with the national No Child Left Behind Act. These are schools where students have not met expectations as measured by standardized testing. Students in public schools throughout the United States are expected to attain a certain level of mastery of skills that are tested. Accomplishing this in such remote areas can be challenging. Arlie’s job is to assist teachers in meeting those challenges.

It may seem more than a little unusual for the Alaska Department of Education to hire someone who lives in Colorado, but this makes perfect sense once Arlie’s background, education, experiences and credentials are explained. She has spent over 30 years as an educator in Alaska and understands the complexities of educating students in these remote villages.

Arlie is a Colorado native. She was born in Grand Junction and attended Colorado colleges as well. She received a B.S. from Colorado State University in speech and hearing pathology, and earned two advanced (master of arts) degrees from the University of Northern Colorado in learning disabilities and speech and language therapy.

She began her career in Juneau, Alaska, as a speech and language pathologist. She fell in love with the beauty, ruggedness and people of Alaska, and there she stayed and taught for 25 years — as an elementary teacher, a high school teacher and a special education resource teacher.

Arlie worked in several capacities as an administrator in the Alaska State Department of Education for eight years. She has twice been named the teacher of the year in districts where she taught, and has been recognized three times as administrator of the year or advisor of the year by the Alaska Association of Student Government. Over the years she has also taken time to serve on boards for non-profit and cultural entities. She was secretary of the Denali Chamber of Commerce in 2007-2008, before she came to Pagosa Springs.

Her teaching career has been “off the grid” in more ways than one from typical teaching positions in the lower 48 states. A glimpse at the district where she is currently working gives an idea of the uniqueness of teaching in such Alaskan villages. Geographically, the Lower Yukon School District is half the size of the state of Louisiana, and the 11 villages in the district have no connecting roads. Most travel there is done by small airplanes although occasionally travel is by snow machine in the winter or boat in the summer. The children are almost exclusively of Yup’ik Eskimo descent. Each school in the district serves a K-12 population and the student population of each village ranged from 64 to 396 students in 2008-2009 (only one district school has a student body over 254 students).

Basketball is the school sport of choice — and a passion throughout the communities. The very few hours of daylight during much of the school year, as well as the freezing temperatures, severely limit outdoor athletic events. Basketball can be played by students of all ages and the (indoor) games are truly community social affairs. Everyone in the village is usually at the school for games.

Arlie’s position as teacher trainer is extremely valuable. The teachers in this district are generally young and turnover is high — about 50 percent annually. The schools are run and maintained much like schools in the lower 48 states, but there are added dimensions to consider. For example, teacher housing is owned by the school district, and it is often difficult for new teachers to establish a sense of pride in where they live. They often feel like outsiders in the community. Unless teachers are natives who have returned to the village, they are not allowed to own property. Students leave the village for higher education, but few of them return as teachers.

Arlie says, “Those who do return to their villages understand the culture better. Most of the non-native teachers here have to love the adventure — backpacking, wilderness experiences, etcetera. Successful teachers here have to be at a stage of their lives where they accept the conditions. At the same time, they need to show the students and the community that education is important. One way they do this is by maintaining ‘business -casual’ attire in the classroom.”

She understands the importance of establishing good relationships with the teachers she works with. The last thing she wants is for them to feel intimidated or suspicious of her motives. Her goal is to help these teachers look at the state standards, and to determine whether they are teaching everything that is being tested. She helps them look at materials and to utilize them most effectively. School districts are required to teach the standards, but they may choose the instructional materials they use.

Arlie is only a few months into this position, so she is just now getting into all the villages. This is the first time the Alaska Department of Education is sending specialists out to the remote districts. Therefore, her role is still being established.

Many young students come to the classroom speaking only their native Eskimo tongue and instruction is done in that language at first, with English gradually phased in by the second grade. While the purpose of the school district is to teach kids at their appropriate instructional level using a broad standards-based model, the importance of ensuring tradition and culture is also highly stressed.

Yup’ik Eskimos combine a contemporary as well as a traditional subsistence lifestyle in a blend that is unique to the Arctic region. The people work and live in western style (the students have a high sense of fashion, music, etc., due to the advanced technology that is available in the villages) but villagers still hunt and fish in traditional subsistence ways. Fishing and hunting are the basis of both their economy and their dietary needs. All the villages have at least one store and a post office. Food and other supplies are delivered by barge via the Bering Sea. Oil is a basic commodity here. It is used both for heat and for running the town generators for power.

The population is linked to the outside world, however, by good telephone systems, satellite TV, and Internet access. The technology at the school district is among the best in the United Sates. As with many U.S. school districts, this one has been highly impacted by a substantial grant from the Gates Foundation.

Imagine Arlie’s commute from Pagosa Springs to the Lower Yukon: She boards a plane in Durango and flies to Denver. From there, she heads to Seattle and on to Anchorage. She spends the night in Anchorage and begins the final leg of her journey the next day. She starts her day early, still in darkness, by flying to the town of Bethel (west from Anchorage toward the Bering Sea). From there she might be able to fly to her final destination, but sometimes she is taken in by a snow machine. Because of Alaska’s long nights and short days in the winter, it is often 11 a.m. or later when the sun is finally seen over the cold horizon.

Packing requires much thought and strategy. She wears a dog musher’s jacket, fleece pants, a warm sweater, warm boots and heavy winter gloves. She carries a well-stocked emergency pack that includes an emergency blanket, waterproof matches and emergency food. These supplies are kept in Anchorage and are replenished for each trip to one of the villages. She needs to be prepared for winter weather conditions and emergencies that many people in the lower 48 states cannot even imagine.

Small planes and snow machines have strict weight limits so she has to be very careful about what she carries. There is also very limited space, especially if she is not the only passenger. She needs to prioritize everything she carries with her and has to be sure all items she takes are necessities. She takes her own food, clothing, sleeping bag, computer and training materials. She takes her own (microwaveable) food because she never knows what is going to be available at her final destination. The villages obviously do not have local motel chains or a bed and breakfast. Occasionally there is a “hotel” which is actually a small, sparsely furnished school district building. Arlie says she prefers to sleep in the village school because, “I know it will have heat and a microwave.”

Arlie and her husband, Brian, moved to Pagosa Springs to be close to children and grandchildren. She loves it here, but she has found she misses Alaska and the pride of the people there. She has a real passion for the villages and their native cultures and is excited about her new position. Her early adult years were spent in such a small village, where she says “I became a part of the village, and even had a subsistence permit for fishing.”

Arlie says she is “a strong advocate for authentic, applied learning experiences where students are actively engaged in a wide variety of innovative, standards-based experiences, enhanced by technology, that create a passion for life-long learning. My philosophy of education is to create an ethic of excellence for all students.”

By sharing her knowledge and experiences with younger teachers, she is able to do exactly this.

“Yes,” she says, “the commute is definitely worth the effort.”