On the edge, in the center
Grant Kashatok faces challenges that most other principals can’t even fathom. He acts as landlord for the housing where his staff of eight teachers live, manages his community’s limited supply of fuel and water, and ensures balanced nutrition for school meals when fresh food is delivered only once a month.
Oh, and he’s also deeply involved in helping to move his village including his school nine miles inland before the community of 403 falls into Baird Inlet off the Bering Sea.
Kashatok is principal of Ayaprun School in Newtok, Alaska, one of dozens of coastal villages threatened by melting permafrost, thinning sea ice, and increasingly violent storm surges. Within 10 years, Newtok will be gone.
Although state government has tried to convince residents in the threatened communities to move to one of the larger cities, few have done so. Newtok residents prefer to move as a community so they can preserve their culture.
About 20 government agencies are involved in the moves and Kashatok, a native Yup’ik Eskimo, is the liaison in many of these discussions, often acting as interpreter between the elders who speak only Yup’ik and the outsiders who typically speak only English.
At one time, there were plans to place the 11-room school on a barge and move it down the river during “freeze up” until it could be placed on massive rollers and hauled to its new location. Most of the homes will be moved in this fashion but Kashatok hopes he’s finally convinced the powers-that-be that “there is nothing about this school that is portable.” He wants the state to build a bigger and better school in their new location.
Even without the impending move, Newtok’s demographics and isolation would be enough challenge for any principal. Nearly all of the 140 students speak Yup’ik at home. Although they learn a lot of English from watching television, teachers must ensure that students know the academic English to be successful in school. When Kashatok arrived as principal six years ago, only 9% of the students were proficient in English; today, 50% meet that standard. All of the high school students pass the state’s mandatory exit exam.
“We make a big deal out of saying that all the smart people know both languages. They can read, write, and speak English and they read, write, and speak Yup’ik,” said Kashatok who believes that holding on to their native language also inspires pride in themselves and their culture.
Access to the Internet motivates students to learn English, he said, because they want to connect with the world outside their small village. Newtok may be in one of the most remote areas of North America but the school has 80 laptop computers, including one for every high school student, and unlimited Internet access.
Kashatok grew up in a nearby village and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. He could have worked almost anyplace in Alaska. He chose to return home.
“I knew I wanted to live where I grew up. I wanted to show our kids that it doesn’t take an outsider to make a difference. When outsiders come in, they tend to have this missionary attitude, that they’re here to ‘save us.’ We can save ourselves,” he said.
Apart from the hassle of moving the entire village, Kashatok sees many teachable moments. His students are living on the edge of climate change. “This is not just a Newtok issue, this is a global issue. When we read about and watch television and learn about climate refugees, we understand what they’re going through because we are going through the same thing,’’ he said.
So, even if you teach on the edge of the world, you can still be in the center of change. JR