Alaska seeks to create statewide reading standards for Alaska Native languages

(Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon) - The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development is seeking a specialist in Alaska Native language education to create state standards for reading in Alaska Native languages for students from kindergarten through third grade.

(An empty hallway at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé in Juneau, Alaska, on July 20, 2022. Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

Currently, there is no standard to gauge reading competency in Alaska Native languages. State law allows for reading instruction in Alaska Native languages, but without standards it is difficult for school districts to communicate progress to the state government. Education officials say the standards will support Alaska Native language instruction in the state.

Joel Isaak, the director of Tribal affairs for the Alaska Department of Education, said the standards are a practical way to support Alaska Native languages through the current structure of the school system.

“It’s using education as the vehicle for increasing access to Alaska Native languages,” he said. “The goal is to promote and preserve through implementation of Alaska Native languages.”

He said the creation of standards is a response to public feedback and recommendations from the Alaska Native Language Preservation & Advisory Council to increase access to Alaska Native language education.

It is part of a broader effort that the department is undertaking to help support Alaska Native languages across the state, Isaak said.

X’unei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast and the chair of the Alaska Native Language Preservation & Advisory Council, said the standards will be an important step in normalizing the languages in state education.

Twitchell said potential next steps could include requiring a semester of an Alaska Native language to graduate from high school or have a teaching certificate in the state.

“I think that sort of starts to push things towards equity, which is what we really need,” he said.

In 2014, Gov. Sean Parnell signed a bill that made 20 Alaska Native languages state languages. Alaska Native languages were typically banned in schools in early statehood, so Twitchell said taking languages that were once prohibited and making them mandatory would be a great step for the state.

“Indigenous peoples were forced to move away from their languages. So now collectively, we all look at that and say, ‘Well, we can all be part of a solution,’” he said.

The search for a standards developer is open until Oct. 31. Once standards are developed they will be moved through the public process for adoption by the state’s Board of Education.

The state’s Alaska Native Language Newsletter is available here