A decade ago, two teachers were working for a remote Alaskan school district. Both had a passion and desire to make a difference in the lives of young rural Alaskans. They realized the traditional education being delivered in the schools to rural/remote students was simply inadequate and unequitable. Students desperately needed a relevant and culturally responsive education model for a rapidly changing way of life. It was glaringly obvious that something had to be done with the plummeting high school graduation rates, the increase in impoverished families, and rising suicide rates in the villages. Their mission was to design and develop a "school-to-life" program to elevate the trajectory of each student's life.
Students needed the opportunity to explore what was beyond the traditional "classroom textbook" placed in front of them. The ability to actually see and experience life outside of their current reality was key for creating a new path. Powerful lessons had already been learned from the history of boarding schools in Alaska. Separating children from their families, communities and culture proved catastrophic and ultimately tore families apart. What if they could leave for short intensive sessions yet stay connected with their families and communities? In 2012, the two teachers teamed up with another colleague teaching in rural Alaska and began the arduous task of designing the nonprofit Alaska EXCEL, which would do exactly that!
Initially, sessions were held on various college campuses, work sites, and even school gymnasiums of partner districts. It was not uncommon for students to be sleeping in classrooms or spread out among empty dorm rooms on campuses across the state. The valuable data gained and amazing results from the program quickly began to emerge. In Kuspuk School District alone, graduation rates were at a bleak 30% prior to students entering the doors of EXCEL. Within the next 4 years it had increased to 75%. Although attending the program was strictly voluntary, nearly every middle and high school student came to multiple EXCEL sessions each year. Learning was truly becoming relevant for these youngsters. Students were now grasping why it is so important to graduate from high school through exploring a life of brand new opportunities--opportunities they once didn't even realize existed. They were learning, and practicing, the necessary personal and social foundational skills to navigate through life. The high school and college credits, work-place certificates, and connections to life-long friends gathered along the way were simply the icing on the cake.
The need for Alaska EXCEL and its life-changing results is far-reaching. The Alaska EXCEL facility is located on the Alaska Pacific University campus. Our new residence can house up to 70 students at any one session, nearly doubling the yearly capacity to 1,000. We are currently serving 10 school districts and over 800 students per year.