Creating More Equitable Schools Together

AASB STEPS Alaska Promise Neighborhood Newsletter

Recent circumstances and events, including the Corona Virus and consistent violence against people of color, have brought inequities and injustices into focus. Alaska has its own history to reconcile from the bombardment of Alaska Native communities to the abuses experienced within the Bureau of Indian Affairs or mission-led boarding schools. This historical trauma was experienced within the living memory of this generation, and has had a lasting impact on Alaska’s students and families.

While our schools look different today—a kindergartner’s mouth will not get washed out with soap for speaking her Native language and physical punishment is no longer allowed in the schools—racism and inequities still persist. Students have reported hearing and being hurt by comments like, “You’re a credit to your race,” which can send messages about low-expectations for that person, her family and her culture. and damaging students’ ability to learn. The brain responds to experiences of racism just as the brain does to other forms of trauma by increasing cortisol levels and short-circuiting the learning processes. There are also structural inequities and mindsets that impact students ability to feel safe, connected, represented and prepared for the educational system.

STEPS partners have been working to improve conditions for learning by addressing racism through equity policy reviews, anti-racism training and by promoting culturally responsive teaching practices. Each of the strategies has been tailored to meet the needs and build on the strengths of the local community. The strategies have centered on key steps to addressing racism in Alaska’s schools: understanding the history, the impact on learning, and how to do things better.

Understanding the history

Many Alaskan educators recognize that the history of Alaskan Native people has not been included in standard history books, or when it does appear, it may be a sugar-coated version. The Chatham School District is addressing this omission by including Bombardment Day in their school calendar and curriculum. Over the summer the Sitka City and Borough Assembly voted to work with the Sitka Tribal Council and Sitka Historical Society to move a statue of Russian colonizer Alexander Baranov from the center of town to a museum where it can be viewed with more historical context. Honest conversations about these traumatic historical events and racist policies is an important step to addressing inequities that persist today.  

Understanding the impact on learning

Zaretta Hammond is nationally respected for her work linking brain science to the impact of racism using cultural strengths and patterns of thinking to improve education outcomes. This year a handful of STEPS partners have had the unique opportunity to work with her to develop a deep understanding of how the brain works so that the why of culturally responsive teaching becomes second nature. Fortunately, Zaretta has made this information accessible to everyone through a number of books including Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. 

The Sealaska Heritage Institute has also been working to elevate culturally responsive teaching through conferences and workshops. This fall SHI also made a series of lectures on Bringing Community into Culturally Responsive Education available virtually. 

In Juneau the school district asked the Haa Toóch Lichéesh (Together We Believe it is Possible) Coalition to provide anti-racism training for all staff at each of its thirteen school sites as well as the school board. The trainings were challenging, emotional, and transformative, in large part because teachers and staff were able to hear from neighbors, parents, and former students about how racism within the school setting has affected them.

Understanding how to do it better

The Juneau School District anti-racism training didn’t just focus on the history and impact of racism in our schools; School staff reflected on the content, worldview, and teaching practices used within their schools and classrooms. The team also offered concrete and constructive tips for teachers and staff. Key themes were to listen to students and their families, look at the data, and intervene when something feels wrong.Teachers play an especially important role in stepping in as allies. Tina DeAsis-Wright with the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition reflected that if teachers had intervened when they heard racist remarks “perhaps I would have learned to hate racism instead of hating myself.”

In Sitka, several organizations worked together to offer the Haa Tuwunáagu Wooch.een Yís (for Healing Our Spirit, Together) Racial Justice & Equity in Southeast Alaska online speaker series over the month of September. Keynote speakers highlighted the importance of critically examining Sitka’s history to understand how the past connects to the present, defined leadership as listening and practicing patience, and reminded participants of the importance of taking care of ourselves, our community, the environment, and culture. The free training was sponsored by the University of Alaska Southeast- Sitka Campus Title III grant project, Sitka Tribe of Alaska Social Services Department, SEARHC, with support from the Sitka STEPS Grant, the Sitka Health Summit, and Pathways Coalitions and are available free at: As a follow-up to the series, the community is planning monthly conversations to examine the systems and structures that perpetuate injustices in Sitka. Sitka’s Pathways Coalition also established a policy to identify and develop policies to promote equity at various levels in the community.