Gambell Elementary

Alaska and Hawaii are separated by 3,000 miles, 40 degrees of average daily temperature, and innumerable cultural differences. Beyond these differences, however, the two states share a common bond―they both have indigenous populations that have successfully preserved their traditions.

St. Lawrence Island in Alaska―home to the Siberian Yupik people―and Molokai island in Hawaii are two such enclaves of indigenous culture. While the two populations are worlds apart, their school systems both use the Success for All comprehensive reading program. So when Lydia Trinidad, principal at the Kualapu’u Public Conversion Charter school on Molokai, was invited to visit the Gambell Elementary School on St. Lawrence Island by Success for All Foundation (SFAF) coach Norma Bartley, the adventurous side of her could not pass up the opportunity:

“To visit an island twice the size of Molokai and with only 800 native Yupik people seemed like an opportunity one rarely gets, much less might go on. Yet I was raring to go!” Trinidad said.

Intending to spend her visit at Gambell Elementary as a substitute teacher, Trinidad packed an array of Hawaiian souvenirs and began her adventure with Norma Bartley. Adventure is the appropriate word: St. Lawrence Island is a small part of the 80,000-square-mile terrain that encompasses the Bering Strait School District. None of the fifteen villages located in the Bering Strait School District are accessible by road; they have to be traversed via a nine-seat twin-propeller airplane. The communities in the district are traditional economies based around hunting and fishing activities. The island of St. Lawrence itself is so remote that residents of Gambell can see Russia on a clear day.

Within the quaint villages of the Bering Strait School District, the schools themselves are often the largest traditional employer and, by extension, the most contemporary facilities in the village. Such was the case with Gambell Elementary:

“We found a well-kept school with modern facilities, including a basketball gym and fully equipped classrooms,” said Trinidad. “Once the din of the cafeteria began to rise, school began to feel like all schools―full of life, full of drama, full of children’s rushed energy.”

Gambell Elementary, along with every other school in the Bering Strait district, had been using Success for All since 1997. The initial challenges for improving the school district were many. The majority of the 1,800-student population consisted of low-income and limited-English-proficient learners, not to mention the logistical problems of serving an 80,000-square-mile district. Despite these challenges, however, Bering Strait has maintained a healthy commitment to SFAF and the research and data-driven decision making that drives the program: districtwide reading-proficiency rates have grown each year from 34 percent in 2003 to 53 percent in 2008.

Reviewing data and proficiency rates, however, was secondary to Trinidad’s overall purpose in visiting Gambell Elementary―to experience a new world like St. Lawrence Island and learn how SFAF programs adapt to local cultures. In the process, she learned how cultural differences determine the value of reading and language:

“I learned that context is everything―the context of the environment and how in many places the environment does regulate life; the context of nature and your surroundings and how people adapt to live in an area, regardless of the extremes. The context of how a native culture manages the nuances of language maintenance, preservation, adaptation, and assimilation in the school and community,” she said.

During an advisory council meeting for Gambell Elementary, Trinidad learned just how context had shaped Gambell Elementary. The advisory council expressed satisfaction with student learning and reading achievement under the SFAF program, but Trinidad was particularly moved by a story told by the head of the council. The council leader talked about how he read about trees in a book, and it wasn’t until fifteen years later that he actually got to see his first tree.

“This simple line truly magnified the importance of how stories and reading open up alien worlds to those living on a remote island full of its own life.” Trinidad said.

This story reminded Trinidad of her own upbringing on a small pineapple plantation on Molokai. She did not visit the U.S. mainland until she was twenty-five years old. Growing up, she had two means of learning about the outside world―television and reading:

“I learned about my world through television, shows like Lawrence Welk and Sesame Street, through the newspaper, and through books…. Reading was, therefore, one of two ways for me to learn about the alien world outside of the island of Molokai.”

In the end, Trinidad noticed many small contextual differences between Molokai and Gambell Elementary: The color of St. Lawrence’s sand is grey―not Molokai gold. The whale is a means of subsistence for the Yupik―not simply a majestic sight as it is on Molokai. Underlying these cultural differences, however, is a common passion for reading that been instilled in both communities: how reading can open new worlds, bridge cultures, and promote understanding. No matter the context or the terrain, SFAF played a large role in revealing that the joys of reading are universal.

As a parting observation, Trinidad reflected on her own native Hawaiian word, ‘Aloha,’ which means affection, love, compassion, and mercy. After experiencing the warmth of the Yupik people, Trinidad came to the following conclusion:

“I learned that aloha exists in all people, and I hope to continue to share the spirit of aloha with the people of Gambell.”