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New School Year Brings Excitement for NPS and BSSD

Amid heavy fog, a yellow school bus is stopped in the middle of a dirt road in a rural Alaska town, waiting for a young student to board.

Wednesday was the first day of the 2019-2020 school year for the Bering Strait School District and Nome Public Schools, bringing teachers and students alike back to the classroom.

Superintendent Bob Bolen says that means BSSD plans to continue focusing on cultural competency among teachers and bolstering their English language arts scores. There is also another major project set to finish in January.

“We’re looking forward to opening our newly renovated school up in Shishmaref. Not completely done yet, so they’ll still be working through some challenges up there, but we plan to open school and make whatever modifications and be flexible with student learning. It’ll be a beautiful school when we get started, so that’ll be the highlight of our year, getting that open.”

BSSD’s push for cultural competency started last year, according to Bolen. He calls the first year of the program a “fact-finding mission.” Community paraprofessionals were in BSSD classrooms, working out how to best integrate local culture in the curriculum throughout the school year.

Nome Public Schools has a similar agenda for this year.

“Well, something we’re working on with the Northwest Campus is something we’re calling a cultural competence credential.”

That’s NPS Superintendent Jamie Burgess, explaining how she hopes to empower teachers to feel more comfortable integrating local culture into classroom material. She says that credentials like this are useful right now because “teachers have some short, focused opportunities to demonstrate expertise in a particular area.” The credential will cover the history of education in the region, as well as exposure to local languages, among other things.

NPS also notably follows BSSD’s example in changing their school calendar this year to cater to families that live a subsistence lifestyle.

“That’s right, kind of, prime in the middle of moose hunting season — a lot of families use that — so we gave them an extra day to get that done.”

Burgess is discussing NPS adding an extra day to the Labor Day weekend. This is one example of NPS working to balance subsistence needs and a desire to maximize students’ time in the classroom. While the subsistence calendar is just now being implemented, student attendance has been a concern for some time. Last year, approximately one third of Nome Elementary students were considered “chronically absent.”

“And that’s a student that misses more than ten days for any reason other than school-related travel, which would be, like, a field trip or traveling for sports.”

Above all, though, Burgess states she is very optimistic about the upcoming year, referencing the new high school principal, who she thinks is making great connections as he starts.

Image at top: A school bus picks up a young student in Nome on a very foggy day, May 2014. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file.

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