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New grant aims to improve writing skills of Alaska Native students

Monday, November 29, 2021

LAWRENCE — Accessible Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Systems (ATLAS), a center within the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, has partnered with Alaska’s Arctic Slope Community Foundation to improve Alaska Native students’ writing skills so they are better prepared for success after high school.

A $1.75 million grant from the Office of Elementary & Secondary Education’s Alaska Native Education program supports the three-year Writing and Revising Interventions to Excel (WRITE) project, which will reach more than 3,000 students in 10 rural school districts. The project will develop research-based learning map models for Alaska career and technical education (CTE) teachers and their students in grades 9-12.

Dale Cope, ATLAS research project director, is WRITE’s principal investigator. Russell Swinburne Romine, ATLAS associate director, and Jennifer Kobrin, ATLAS research and evaluation lead, are co-principal investigators.

The project addresses a problem that is prevalent in Alaska and high schools throughout the United States: CTE teachers are not usually trained to teach argumentative writing.

“Students who graduate high school without the ability to write persuasively often end up in developmental courses in college,” Cope said. “When students enter college needing developmental writing courses, their chances for finishing a degree greatly diminish.”

Patuk Glenn, executive director of the Arctic Slope Community Foundation, said the partnership with ATLAS aligns with the foundation’s mission to improve the quality of life for those in the Arctic Slope region of Alaska. Glenn attended high school in rural Alaska. After she graduated high school in 2002, she was forced to take remedial writing courses at the University of Alaska.

“When you travel to a big city, that in itself is a big deal. When you then realize your writing skills are not at the level they need to be to succeed, it’s a two-pack punch,” Glenn said.

In many villages in rural Alaska — so remote they are accessible only by airplane — teachers are teaching multiple subjects, and young people must learn the indigenous way of life for survival. “It often comes down to choices like learning to write a resume or learning to hunt with your dad,” she said.

Deborah Riddle, an Alaska Department of Education and Early Development partner on the WRITE project, has experience working with ATLAS and its maps-based system. She said broadening that partnership to include argumentative writing standards taught within the general education curriculum is an exciting prospect.

Cope agrees. “State assessments show us that this problem is not unique to Alaska,” she said. “We’re building on the learning resources created in the earlier projects with new maps to help general education teachers become better writing teachers. I’m excited about where that could lead.”