In a rural setting, school and community come together
New Stuyahok, AK, is as rural as it gets. Imagine a small Alaskan town with only 510 people, surrounded by serene, beautiful mountains and tundra and where hunting, fishing, and subsisting off the land aren’t merely hobbies—they are a way of life. The town is isolated from road and highway systems, and the only way to access it is by a single-engine airplane. In fact, the only way to get any supplies or goods to the town is by plane, including all materials needed to run a functioning school for 134 of those inhabitants. That is exactly where Meghan Redmond has found herself living, teaching, and succeeding as NASSP’s 2019 Assistant Principal of the Year at Chief Ivan Blunka School.
Redmond always knew she wanted to be in education. She started her career as a third-grade teacher in Wisconsin. When she and her husband felt they needed a change, they attended a job fair where there were recruiters from Alaska. Redmond interviewed and was hired as a teacher for a village school within the Southwest Region School District in Twin Hills, AK, a town of 80 people with 15–20 students in the entire school. During her second year teaching, she was asked to be the lead teacher, which meant she was also responsible for all administrative work. She spent five years in this leadership role while she obtained her master’s degree in educational leadership at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Following this, she transferred to Chief Ivan Blunka School within the same district—where she became the assistant principal. After three years at the school, she has no plans to go elsewhere.
Starting in a new village school in Alaska requires not only learning the ropes within the school district, but also earning the trust of the entire village. Newcomers are often viewed with skepticism because they rarely stay. But even though Redmond started as an outsider, she was quickly accepted—a fact evident in how the staff has since rallied around her.
“In the transition from the 2017–18 school year to the 2018–19 school year, [we were] beyond proud to have 100 percent retention of our teachers, classified staff, and administrators,” Redmond says. “The impact of this consistency on our students and the community cannot be overstated. By committing to return as a team and providing a consistent school culture and climate, the staff have shown the community that they will work together for what is best for our students.” There is no separation between school and community. The school is the community, so everything Redmond does at her school and the opportunities she provides to her students resonate throughout the village. With this philosophy in mind, Redmond has already instituted three successful programs at the school that have created a positive, familial atmosphere.
Embracing Community Culture
The community and student population at Chief Ivan Blunka School is nearly 100 percent Yup’ik Eskimo Alaska Native. While the first language that students learn at home is English, many of the elders in the village still speak Yup’ik. School staff and the entire Southwest Region School District work tirelessly to keep the Yup’ik language alive in the students. “We utilize the local culture, language, and traditional values to inform our instruction and decision making,” Redmond says. For example, students say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in both English and Yup’ik. Tapping into this cultural awareness, Redmond has designed the Yup’ik Value of the Month program around the values written down by local elders in 1983 at the Bristol Bay Native Convention. Each month, a core value is taught. The first Yup’ik value on the list is Qigcikluku nunamta atullerkaa, which translates to, “Have respect for our land and resources.” Teachers discuss this value throughout the month in classes, reminding the whole school to follow the value in their daily lives. Students and teachers who practice this value get their name displayed on a card on a central bulletin board for all to see. At the end of the month, the staff draws one person’s name from among the cards to win a prize.
After a successful debut of the program at Chief Ivan Blunka School, Redmond shared the idea with the entire district. Today, all eight schools in the district, along with the school board, have implemented it in some capacity. The program educates students about their native culture and creates a sense of pride throughout the district.
Redmond also believes in driving success, noting that if you don’t tell your own story, then the public is apt to form its own opinions about your school. She wants the world to know what life is really like in a rural Alaskan village, so she established the hashtag #TheEagleWay. Students, teachers, and members of the community post positive school stories on social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. “We developed our school hashtag to promote a school culture where students are proud of the way they behave and where they come from,” she says. Through this hashtag, Redmond hopes to enlighten followers about students’ accomplishments and show some of the innovative ways of thinking and teaching in the school.
One of the favorite programs for students and teachers alike is Exploration Week. For four weeks throughout the school year, students and teachers get to take a break from their regular courses of study and immerse themselves in specialized classes. Redmond spearheads the entire program, including approving classes, setting up schedules, and coordinating students—along with ordering all of the necessary supplies and providing a reflection process. She even teaches one of the classes herself! The teachers and students are polled on what types of classes they would like to take or teach. Redmond then collaborates with the teachers to build a curriculum around the desired topics. Last year’s lineup included cooking, quilting, ATV repair, subsistence fishing and meat processing, ice fishing, hunter safety, wilderness survival, and basketball referee training. “These weeks have allowed us to increase our course offerings and advancement opportunities for the students, along with some courses leading to dual credit and industry-based certifications,” Redmond says.
Being physically cut off from the rest of the world can be a challenge, but that doesn’t stop Redmond from bringing the outside world to students. “I feel that it is a major part of my responsibilities to provide my students in every grade as many opportunities as possible to see what college and career options are out there for them and provide them with equal access to an amazing future of their choice,” Redmond says. Last year she set up virtual tours of three different universities for her senior class. The students were able to talk to admissions counselors, take a virtual tour of campus, and ask questions. Additionally, whenever there is an outside visitor in the village, Redmond encourages that person to visit the school to talk to the students about their life and career. Recently, Alaskan State Troopers and public health nurses visited to present issues related to drug and alcohol abuse prevention. Whenever possible, Redmond tries to offer educational opportunities, including when she and her students are traveling.
One year she took a trip with student council officers to Washington, D.C., to attend Close Up, a national program that encourages young people to exercise their rights and accept the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. “Sometimes it feels like my biggest job as assistant principal is as a travel agent,” she jokes. It took four airplanes and 24 hours of travel and sitting in airports to get to their destination. In addition to the program events, students visited the National Museum of the American Indian. There, the Yup’ik exhibit included many artifacts and pictures of people from the villages, some of whom the students knew. As they were touring the exhibit and discussing their own experiences, their conversation caught the ears of a passing group, who stopped and talked to the students about Yup’ik culture. Redmond loved watching the students talk with pride about their village, culture, and language. It was a trip none will soon forget.
Redmond learned from many mentors on her way to assistant principal, but current principal Robin Jones tops the list. “I couldn’t have done any of this without her. We think the same way, and we are consistent in our view of the school and our goals for the students,” Redmond says. The two have known each other and worked together for 10 years. Redmond appreciates the freedom Jones gives her to create new classes and programs for the students in which she is able to provide opportunities to widen their worldview.
“Facilitating collaboration is one of Meghan’s biggest strengths, as well as using data to guide instruction,” Jones says. “Utilizing data and intentional grouping, Meghan provides guiding questions that lead to effective collaboration between grade levels to identify specific interventions for struggling learners. Because of these targeted interventions, our students have shown tremendous progress.”
In such a rural landscape, Jones notes that Redmond’s job goes beyond that of a typical assistant principal. In addition to the standard administrative, guidance, and teaching duties that Redmond performs, she also partners with Jones to be “the athletic director, shuttle driver, landlord of teacher housing, maintenance foreman, and fundraising coordinator, to name a few.”
Redmond credits her 100 percent teacher retention rate to the family culture of the school, a culture that she works hard to maintain. Keeping non-native teachers in a remote Alaskan village is hard. People miss their families. Understanding that, Redmond will often bring back some comforts from the outside world—like fresh produce, ice cream, and donuts—when she flies out to conferences. She tries to create that feeling of family that can be elusive out in the bush. The school district provides housing for the teachers, so not only does everyone work together, they live together, too. Redmond listens to her teachers vent their frustrations without judgment or penalty. She provides positive feedback and guides them with a gentle hand to improve their teaching.
“Meghan has helped staff develop individual improvement plans and facilitated peer observations to allow teachers a chance to collaborate and improve their teaching practices,” says special education teacher Ben Griese.
While Redmond tries to give Jones credit for the sense of family and retention rate, Jones turns it back to her. “It is clear that Mrs. Redmond values consistency and retention by committing to serve in the same district for nine years. This commitment has had such a monumental influence on the students, staff, and community in a state that has some of the highest teacher turnover rates in the entire nation,” Jones says. “Meghan also recognizes the importance of staff members getting connected to the local community and models this immersion whenever possible.” She creates a home away from home.
Redmond loves teaching in Alaska. She jumped headfirst into an entirely different world, but she says she wouldn’t change a thing and is proud that her children will be attending Chief Ivan Blunka School. One of Redmond’s favorite memories of teaching in Alaska centers on her very first day on the job. She and her class jumped on ATVs and rode five miles down the beach to go clamming—not exactly the type of lesson that is taught in the lower 48. It was her first time teaching in Alaska, her first ATV ride, and the first time she’d ever been clamming. These “firsts” helped to define her Alaskan experience, and she’s trailblazing many more in education. Clearly, with learning, there are no “lasts.”
Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.
Sidebar: Meet Meghan Redmond
Meghan Redmond graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a bachelor’s degree and from the University of Alaska Anchorage with a master’s degree in educational leadership. She is a member of the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals and is the director of Region 7. In October 2018, she received the Alaska Assistant Principal of the Year Award.
When Redmond isn’t working, she enjoys spending time with her husband, Andrew, and their three children, ages 5, 2, and 7 months. Together, along with their two dogs—a golden retriever and a husky mix—the family likes to spend time outdoors hiking or fishing for salmon. Redmond also enjoys quilting and sewing.
Sidebar: Small Schools Matter Movement
In 2015, Redmond started the Small Schools Matter movement when some Alaskan schools were in danger of being closed. A state legislator from Alaska wanted to introduce a bill changing the minimum number of students required in order to receive state funding from 10 to 20. “This terrified the community,” Redmond says. “When a school closes, the community collapses.” She started a Facebook page that included many small schools—not only in Alaska but in rural areas all over the United States. On that Facebook page, school administrators, teachers, and students posted positive stories about life in a small town and the benefits of attending a small school. Redmond also took six of her students to Juneau to meet with the legislator and express their concerns, wanting “to give a face to the bill instead of just a dollar sign.” The students spoke to the legislator themselves and expressed their concerns. Redmond is extremely proud to say that the bill was never introduced. The state minimum remains at 10, and for now the schools and their communities are safe.