Native Village Youth and Education News

April 1, 2009 Issue 196 Volume 2

Delivering the promise of education

By Dean Chavers

The most successful team in the history of Indian education just published a book about their adventures. “Delivering on the Promise” by Richard A. Delorenzo, Wendy J. Battino, Rick M. Schreiber, and Barbara Gaddy Carrio tells how they won the highest award in the U. S. for their ground breaking program.

In 1994 the Chugach School District knew it was failing. Student test scores were at the 15th percentile. Only one student had attended college in 20 years, and he flunked out. Staff turnover was very high.

Distance was another problem. Most Chugash students are Alaska Natives who live in the “bush” country of southeast Alaska. Chugash country is huge -- larger in size than the state of Virginia. The only way to reach most of the villages is by airplane or boat.

With all these challenges, Chugach School District was desperate for answers.

But instead of revamping their curriculum and touching it up, Chugash School District completely re-invented it. They threw out the old curriculum, then developed ten curriculum units that cover the knowledge students needed to graduate. Involved in the process were teachers, parents, students, board members, and community leaders. When they had finished it was theirs.

 And it worked. In seven years they had turned the school around. Student test scores had climbed above the 75th percentile. Staff turnover is under 5%. Most graduates now attend college. Many have graduated. 

Chugash went to great lengths to change their system. They set aside 30 days before the start of the school year to train teachers in the new methods. These trainings continue. 

The most radical thing Chugach did was to switch from measuring time to measuring learning. Some students can learn a subject in three hours; others might eight hours. Why pretend, they asked, that all students can learn a subject in the same amount of time? This radical approach was hard for some to understand.

Chugach students began completing subjects in their own timeframes. A math whiz might complete the math curriculum by age 15, but not finish other subjects until the age of 18.

The district also threw out the “Carnegie” units. In today's high schools, one must earn 24 Carnegie units to graduate. Not at Chugach. There you have to learn the material in all ten subject areas, with the bar set very high, before graduation.

Chugash needed help from others to succeed, so they reached out to the business community. At first, most business leaders refused to attend meetings because they thought the district wanted their money.  When they realized the district only wanted their expertise, businesses became committed.

The next step a commitment from parents who were more leery than the business people had been. But with time they also got motivated and helped plan and implement the curriculum.

The final group was to involve students. Within a year, student motivation had soared.

In 2002 President Bush awarded Chugash School District the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Chugash was the first school district to win it. . To accept an award from the President, a suit and tie were required. Mr. DeLorenzo said he had to buy his first suit to attend the presentation

Today, the Chugach district has established the RISC Coalition to teach others how to achieve exemplary results. Their efforts have been highly successful.  The Bering Straits School District in Alaska and the Adams School District in Colorado are just two districts which turned around using the RISC methods.

"Delivering on the Promise"  is available from Solution Tree Publishers at


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