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Kenaitze Indian Tribe expanding education programs in Kenai schools and beyond

Sabine Poux/KDLL

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe is building up its in-school and after-school programs for Alaska Native students with help from a federal grant.

The tribe’s education director, Rachel Gilbert, said the money will fund five positions to expand its existing education programs. A large focus of those programs, she said, is culture.

“There’s a lot of rigidity in K-12 schools that put our kids in a box and expect them to fit this mold. And I think what we – from the tribal education side – are seeing is that that mold, it really prevents our kids from developing their cultural identity," Gilbert said. "So really, the biggest push for us is through language. We will help build their identity, their cultural identity. Because language and culture are completely inseparable."

The Kenaitze Tribe is receiving $372,436, as one of 15 tribal agencies awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Education program. 

Educational programming is already a growing arm of the Kenaitze Tribe. It’s currently building a new educational campus in Kenai to centralize its afterschool and summer programs, like the Native Youth Olympics.

But the tribe also works in local schools. Tribal Council Chairperson Bernadine Atchison said the partnership with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is fairly new.

“It was just before COVID," Atchison said. "And really we just got into an MOU with them this last year.”

The tribe has two staff each working in four Kenai schools – Kalifornsky Beach Elementary, Mountain View Elementary, Kenai Middle School and Kenai Central High School.

"And what we did with the school district is we identified the highest number of Title VI Alaska Native American Indian students enrolled in the schools, so that we targeted or support to make sure we got most of our kids possible," Gilbert said. Title VI supports programming for Native American and Alaska Native students.

Educational program staff are trained in the tribe’s cultural curriculum. Gilbert said they’re also always monitoring new academic research, so they can keep kids engaged and learning throughout the day.

"And so basically our culture instructors are in the school during the school day to help kids with social-emotional learning, with affective needs like taking brain breaks and deescalation," Gilbert said. "Some academic needs. And then as soon as the school day ends, we transition our kids into the afterschool programs we’ve traditionally been running.”

She hopes with the grant funds in hand, the tribe can make Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science its fifth partner school in Kenai.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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