Southwest Alaska education program growing in courses, students

  • The Brooks Range stands over the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System near the Dalton Highway. The Brookian formations created by the rise of the mountain range that created the North Slope are still yielding oil discoveries that have the potential to help re-fill the 40-year-old pipeline. (Photo/Patrick Endres/
  • Students learn to fix appliances during a class at the Bristol Bay Borough School on May 2. (Photo/Courtesy/Jack Forrester)

DILLINGHAM — There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. But in the case of the Bristol Bay regional career and technical education partnership it takes nearly two dozen villages to raise more than 100 students.

The partnership brings together industry, local government, school districts and communities in an effort to better prepare Southwest Alaska youth for life after high school, Bristol Bay Borough School District Principal Rick Luthi explained.

“The communities and organizations value what has been set up because it’s preparing kids for life after high school,” Luthi said. “… They see this as good for the health and wellbeing (of communities).”

From May 1 to May 5, students from the Bristol Bay Borough, Lake and Peninsula, Southwest Region and Dillingham City school districts gathered for hands-on learning in Naknek, King Salmon and Dillingham. That was the fourth, and final, week-long focus on career and technical education of the school year.

Rick Luthi, principal at the Bristol Bay Borough School District, helped start the program seven years ago. Over the years, it has had to evolve. He and the others running the program don’t have a crystal ball to determine what skills students will most need in the future.

So they offer a wide-range of options, check-in with industry on what folks see coming to Alaska businesses, and make sure there is college credit for many of the courses.

“We’re getting kids ready for a world that sometimes is hard to define,” Luthi said.

Together, the participating school districts cover hundreds of square miles all over Bristol Bay, from Lake Clark to Perryville and Togiak. This month, students from 20 different communities participated in the courses.

In Naknek and King Salmon this month, they were learning about small appliance repair, non-destructive testing, and becoming a fishing guide. Across Bristol Bay in Dillingham, they learned about computer support essentials and graphic arts.

Ethan Agli was enrolled in non-destructive testing, his sixth CTE class throughout his high school career.

Non-destructive testing is essentially a way of testing various systems, that isn’t harmful to them. Over the course of the class, the students learned that it could be used in a wide-range of situations. It was’t just one thing, they explained.

“The most fun part of this class is when we went down to the boiler room and got to do some actual testing,” Agli said.

The students also practiced reading radiography images and using an infrared camera. Although the testing could look for radiation, the students were not going to practice that.

Agli signed up largely because the course was something different for CTE week. By May 2, it had become a possible future plan.

“I’m thinking about it,” he said. “(The instructor) mentioned something about a program at UAA. …You can work anywhere.”

That course was offered with help from Bristol Bay Native Corp., and its subsidiary Kakivik, which does the testing in the real world. BBNC tries to get shareholders to go through the training to work for Kakivik, and helped get the training to the students, too.

It’s also an aging field, and those involved in the class said they hoped exposing youth to the field could change the demographics a little.

While some students learned about testing, students in the Bristol Bay school shop area worked on learning how to fix appliances, including a toyo stove, washing machine and freezer.

Chignik Lake student Brittany Morales said she was glad to learn such practical skills.

Now she and her classmates would be in demand when they got home, joked instructor Dan Phinney.

“They can go home and fix their washers now,” he said.

Students in the Western Rivers certification class were also learning skills that could help them with future employment. Sportfishing guide and lodge owner Nanci Morris Lyon prepared them for the U.S. Coast Guard exam required to serve as a guide, talking them through the regulations that oversee the field.

Retired educator Jack Forrester said Morris Lyon helped develop the course as a way to get kids ready to work in the local industry.

Hiring locally is good for area residents, but also for the lodges, Morris Lyon said. Area fishermen know their home streams and what works particularly well (or what doesn’t work at all), which is invaluable knowledge for those visiting the lodges.

By May 2, the seven students were eager to get on the water and practice the skills they’d need as guides, like unhooking fish and releasing them safely, or stringing them up.

Some of the students had already worked as assistant guides. Others, like Letishia Walcott from New Stuyahok, were just thinking about it. As she caught one Dolly Varden after another on King Salmon Creek, she said guiding sounded like it might be a fun job. She fishes nearly every day during the summer, so it could be a way to do what she loves, she said.

The CTE program is also about “more than just what they do during the day,” Luthi said. It is also an opportunity to teach “some of the things we want students to learn and know before they leave us.”

Those are things like job application and interview skills, water safety, business and financial skills through the Junior Achievement program, and driver’s education. Those offerings come in the evenings, after the main classes end.

And at the same time as the career and technical courses were underway, students in Naknek could participate in “extensions and corrections,” which helped them catch up on past work, or learn more about specific topics, from academics to special topics like cooking and hunter safety.

Teacher Andrew Johnson said the structure of the program also helps prepare students for the world of jobs. They have to fill in their course applications correctly, show up on time, and behave appropriately — all skills needed in life, he said.

The program has been developing for years. Luthi helped get it started when he noticed that while most of the Lake and Peninsula district’s schools had shops, not many were in use. So he worked with several individuals, including Forrester, to develop a career and technical education partnership between the Lake and Peninsula and Bristol Bay Borough school districts, which launched seven years ago.

“We started with eight young bodies and one class, and we’ve evolved to four session a year (and more than 100 students),” Forrester said.

Since then, the program has offered to add more fields of study and more sites. Most recently, Southwest Region and Dillingham City school districts have begun to participate. Next year, the partnership will expand further.

This spring, the girls section of the new dormitory opened up. In the fall, the boys section will be ready for use. Johnson is working on adding an academic component to the week. The region’s districts have many small schools, and it can be hard to offer every class a student might be interested in, or need to succeed later. Partnering makes it easier.

Now that Naknek has dorms, it is easier to expand the program, Johnson said. Boarding students has been one of the costly parts of the CTE program, but the dorms add capacity and reduce the cost.

Community and school needs and student interests will help drive the courses that are offered, Johnson said, but it’ll be classes that are hard to offer at the smaller schools in the region.


Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

05/10/2017 - 12:40pm