While Natives represent more than 16 percent of Alaska's population, they make up less than 8 percent of its press corps.(1) Recruitment of Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut journalism students proves difficult because the state's rural areas (where the majority live) are seldom served by newspapers, and television covers virtually no local news. The few Native journalists employed in Alaska are not high-profile role models, and most Native students cannot conceive of journalism as a viable profession.
Although urban high schools in Alaska generally have well-developed journalism programs, small rural schools seldom do. Journalism's role in promoting democracy and self-determination is seldom discussed. Few teachers present journalism as a career option.(2) And rural school boards, focused on teaching "basics," increasingly view journalism as an extracurricular activity.
Native residents and their school boards show primary concern for the wide and growing disparity in educational attainment between Alaska's urban and rural Native students. Two decades ago, Alaska's participants in SAT/ACT tests scored slightly above the national average, but by 1989 the state had dropped slightly below the national norm. At that time, Native Alaskans ranked almost 50 percent lower than their Caucasian counterparts.(3) Their test scores continue to slide, and the Native drop-out rate (27 percent) is now twice the non-Native rate.(4)
Mounting social ills also imperil Alaska's indigenous population. There is roughly a one-in-10 chance that a 15-year-old Native boy will kill himself or make a serious attempt to do so before the age of 25. Substance abuse is a major problem. Natives are 34 percent of Alaska's prison population but only 16 percent of the state's population.(5)
In light of these figures, it would be an over-simplification to blame plummeting test scores solely on the educational system. However, innovative teaching methods are obviously needed to motivate students in this turbulent environment.
To this end--and with an eye toward media recruitment--intensive use of journalism as a teaching tool was instituted in six rural schools in 1991-1992 by the Department of Journalism and Broadcasting, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and backed by the Alaska Schools Research Fund of the Alaska State Legislature.
The Alaska pilot program attempted to replicate, in part, previous research that showed students who study journalism do better in tests than those who do not. A 1987 survey of 19,249 students by the Journalism Education Association Commission on the Role of Journalism in Secondary Education showed that those involved in high school journalism projects had higher ACT Composite and English scores than those who were not. Studies also showed that exposure to reading and writing through journalism apparently had more relevance for college-bound students than traditional exposure through British and English classics or other required English courses.(6)
Two years later, New York University researchers reported that middle school students who read newspapers in the classroom developed better writing skills than non-newspaper readers and, at the sixth-grade level, improved their reading comprehension.(7)
Pilot Design. This program focused on training high school teachers to teach journalism as they established classes to produce school newspapers as a unit in an English class. Routine academic tests of students performed annually by the schools provided the objective criterion by which progress (or lack of it) was gauged. Site scores were compared with those of similar schools where journalism was not taught. In addition, pre-and post-tests were administered at each site providing journalism instruction.
Teacher evaluation of the program and observations by the researcher who conducted in-service teaching sessions (fall and spring) at each school also offered insight. …