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Nome schools prioritize filling cultural education position

Jamie Burgess at a 2018 community forum for Superintendent finalists

With the retirement of a longtime Nome Public School District educator looming, superintendent Jamie Burgess said it is one of her top priorities to fill the position.

Sandi Keller, the cultural educator at Nome Elementary School, is retiring after 17 years with the district. Burgess said it will take a special type of educator to follow in Keller’s shoes.

Burgess said seeking an educator for the position is a difficult proposition at this point.

“That’s going to be a really tough position to fill, because we can’t just hire anybody from the Lower 48,” Burgess said. “We need somebody that has a deep knowledge of the culture and language and is able to share that with our children at the elementary level, that’s super key.”

Burgess added that each young student in Nome is impacted, in one way or another, by the Inupiaq immersion program at NPS.

“That position really dovetails with that, they support it because they see every child in the school, while the immersion classrooms only see the children enrolled in those programs,” Burgess said. “Our cultural arts teacher touches every single child at the elementary school.”

Making children feel connected to their culture and proud of who they are is one of the most important factors for Burgess as it relates to cultural education.

Burgess wants to see the cultural program that has flourished under Keller continue to grow in Nome schools.

“I want to see more of our local culture reflected in instruction, reflected in the classrooms,” Burgess said. “We’ve made some progress but not nearly enough, so it’s continued work to continue to grow those types of cultural programs.”

Keller began teaching in the 2006-2007 school year. She was recognized by the Alaska Department of Education in April 2020 for taking her students to the small boat harbor to learn about sea ice, fish ecology and subsistence fishing. After ice fishing, as part of teaching cultural knowledge and respect, her students brought their catch to the local senior center to share with elders.

The Bering Strait School District, which serves 15 villages in Western Alaska, also has a cultural education position. According to the district office, it was recently filled, with the position scheduled to begin in the 2023-2024 school year.

Image at top: Nome Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Burgess. Photo by Gabe Colombo/KNOM.

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