STEPS Alaska Updates
Stepping Up for Alaska's Youth!

Almost 1 year into the COVID-19 pandemic, life looks very different than it did last spring. State and community shelter-in-place orders, economic challenges, and school closures resulting in a transition to remote learning have caused enormous disruptions to everyday life. Young people especially have felt the effect of these changes in unimaginable ways, including significant impacts to their social, emotional, and mental health. 

In June, America’s Promise Alliance published a report, The State of Young People during COVID-19, which shared the results of a nationally representative survey of youth aged 13-19. The results of the survey are a sobering picture of how students across the nation are faring. According to the report, 30% of young people say they have more often been feeling unhappy or depressed since the pandemic.

According to the report, since the full or partial closure of schools and the transition to remote learning, students across the country are feeling significantly less connected to their school community, school adults, and their classmates, with about a quarter of students feeling not connected at all.
How connected
Many youth have lost a critical space where they normally would spend the majority of their time, build essential connections, and access resources. For those students who are most at risk, afterschool activities are also an important place to socialize with their peers. And, unfortunately, it can be difficult to provide this same sense of connection and socialization through online or hybrid learning models.

While districts and universities across Alaska are doing their best to adapt to the new normal, there is still work to be done to support youth of all ages. As we discuss transitioning back to in-person learning, it is important to build our mental health infrastructure, and rebuild connection for students. 

The STEPS communities and partners are uniquely positioned to respond in creative, collaborative and innovative ways to effectively support students through the pandemic and in the transition back to in-person school.

The stories below highlight how STEPS partners are working together systemically to build this connection, strengthen social and emotional learning structures, and build a deeper connection to students and their families.
2021 Virtual Youth Advocacy Institute Report

STEPS districts' students came together virtually with other students from across Alaska on February 6th and 7th for AASB's annual Youth Advocacy Institute. Students discussed issues impacting them and their peers this year and mentioned these key impacts of Covid: 

  • School openings and closure created instability 
  • It was hard to stay focused at home, and they are behind, have lower grades, or have lost motivation.
  • There are not great supports for students who are failing to catch back up and deal with stress they are experiencing
  • Stable internet is still hard and has made online learning very hard.
  • Everyone's mental health is challenged during this time

Students spoke with legislators about how we can do more to support students' mental health, transitions back to school, and educational structures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students identified these as issues as some of the most significant issues impacting students ability to succeed and transition back to school:

  • Student emotional and mental health as impacted by Covid 19. 
  • Access to safe drinking water.
  • Changes to the ferry system limits opportunities for students.
  • Safe school climate for all students
  • Inequalities show up (racism and other isms and microaggressions) and students cannot learn or feel safe enough to want to be at school
  • Increase in alcohol use, substance use 
  • Witnessing domestic violence and trauma at home impacts the learning of many students
  • Roads being built and impacts on traditional grounds for subsistence and hunting. 

Students brought forward thoughtful discussion questions to legislators and tribal government and nonprofit leaders. Senators Shelley Hughes, Josh Revak, and Jesse Keihl, as well as Representatives Geran Tarr, Andi Story, Harriet Drummond, and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins were part of a luncheon panel and discussed these issues.
“You were very thorough in how you laid your advocacy plan, and the points that you made…” Liz Medicine Crow gave feedback and insight to students on their testimony.  
Students also were able to practice testimony and have discussions with President Peterson of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and La Quen Náay Liz Medicine Crow and Barbara Blake, Elizabeth Uyuruciaq David, Wahlaal Giddak, of First Alaskans Institute.  

Students explored these issues and advocated for their peers, so that schools and other institutions can address them, and plan for them in the last months of the school year.  

Students always bring such insight into the work we do as a STEPs community. We are interested to hear from you and your students. As you reflect on issues impacting your own students, consider the questions below:

  • What are issues impacting your students ability to learn?
  • Which students learning is most impacted? How could those students be helped to close out the school year?
  • What are ways families and students can get support if they are struggling?
  • How are families being prepared for the end of the school year and transition into the next grade band?
  • How are students graduating being supported on their next steps?

Share your students’ thoughts with
United Way: Meeting kids where they’re at

Connecting with and supporting student learning has been a challenge throughout the pandemic. In Juneau, the schools have just begun optional in-person learning. The district recognized that younger students and some older students really need some extra support, and asked themselves and their partners, how do we support students who do not have a high level of support at home. 

STEPS partner, United Way, has one Americorps member, Trinity James, who during the day provides literacy support for students at Gastineau Sayéik Elementary. Trinity, as a resident in Gruening Park, saw that students in Gruening Park would also benefit from a learning space

Thus began the Gruening Park Learning Center. Trinity shared that the learning center “is a place for kids first. Our main focus is homework support so every day we make it a point to set a goal of finishing assigned daily work as well as any incomplete homework before exploring more creative outlets.”

Trinity continued, “We have a lot of great artists in Gruening Park! As well as the academic we are also partnering with Discovery Southeast to provide a chance to explore the outdoors with safety precautions in place.” She shared that recently students were able to get out into the snow and snowshoe, some for the first time. The Learning Center is also in the early stages of starting a gardening program for both kids and parents within Gruening Park.   

Partners like United Way, Americorps, and Discovery Southeast have found a way to support schools and families by meeting kids where they are. Kids in Gruening Park who may need or want some help with homework or tech support have a safe place to go, learn, play and connect thanks to the new learning center.
Students get ready to start their year at UAS (photo curtesy of UAS)

UAS: Students exceeding expectations during the pandemic

When the pandemic forced UAS to close on campus housing, send students home, and move courses online in the spring of 2020, staff feared that students would drop, fail, or withdraw from classes. 

Indeed, they had good cause to be worried. A look at statewide retention rates further underscores the urgent need to rethink how we are supporting student success. At a statewide level, the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education estimates that retention rates for all students have been hovering around 30% in recent years, and for Alaska Native students, just one in ten enrolled students is likely to graduate with a four year degree in six years time. 

Recognizing the need to provide more support, the University of Alaska Southeast kicked off a “Retention through Intervention” effort at the beginning of Spring 2020, beofre the COVID closure. .

Thirty faculty members signed up for the project, which focused on identifying and providing additional support to students taking one of 45 “gateway courses”. A gateway course is a developmental or foundational course; studies have found that students who do not complete gateway courses are unlikely to persist to graduation.  

Professors committed to providing early progress reports and mid-term grades. If they indicated a student was at risk of failing, UAS staff advisors proactively contracted the student. 

And then the pandemic hit. How would the students who were most vulnerable to dropping out weather the storm?

It turns out, they fared surprisingly well. Pass rates for gateway courses went up 8% and fail rates went down 8% compared with the previous three years. In the spring 77% of students enrolled in gateway courses passed, as compared with 69% over the previous three years. Only 9% failed compared with 17% in the previous three years. 

Faculty also felt good about the results. 94% of those surveyed said they would participate in the project again and all of them said they would continue to share progress reports with advising staff. UAS is running the program again in Spring 2021.

While this project was conducted in a university setting, school districts and other organizations working with children and families can also apply these strategies by asking two key questions. 

  • How can you identify students and families who are at risk early on?

Some schools use chronic absenteeism data, performance from previous years, and staff referrals to identify students and families who may need extra support early in the school year. 

  • How can you develop a system to proactively reach out to students and families before it’s too late?

Most of the resources utilized in the Retention through Intervention project were in place prior to the project’s inception. What made the difference was systematically applying protocols to address the needs of students early in the semester. Faculty provided feedback earlier and were intentionally looking for other warning signs, advisors had a clear role, and perhaps most importantly, staff reached out to students instead of waiting for students to seek help. 

Proactive outreach can be especially important for Alaska Native students and families who have been historically disenfranchised by the education system. It’s important for first generation and immigrant families who may not be as familiar with how to ask for help and support within the educational system, as well as low-income families who may be experiencing high levels of stress, to feel welcomed into the school community and be given access to resources before problems arise.
Juneau School District: Does Trauma Engaged Training Make a Difference?

A growing body of national evidence has suggested that Trauma Engaged practices improve outcomes for students. But the question we all want to know is: Does investing time and money in Trauma Engaged Training and support make a difference in our schools and for our students?

Social and Emotional Learning Coordinator Maressa Jensen recently used the School Climate and Connectedness Survey (SCCS) to gain insight about how Trauma Engaged practices were impacting staff and students in the Juneau School District. She looked at six elementary schools in the district. Four of those schools serve higher rates of students who are Alaska Native or mixed race or whose families qualify as low-income and thus were included in the STEPS grant. 

Through STEPS and other targeted efforts, including a three year training and coaching program with Washington State University’s Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience (CLEAR), staff at those four schools have received ongoing training, coaching, and support. The other two schools only participated in district-wide in-service training focused on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).
The School Climate and Connectedness Survey results indicate that the schools which invested in Trauma Engaged practices and coaching had better results. Staff responses from all six schools indicated that they understood trauma, however, staff at the four focus schools responded on average nearly 20% more favorably when asked if they had the skills to address trauma. Staff at these schools also stated that they felt supported, and knew their roles. Staff at these same schools also felt less worn out which is promising for staff retention and well-being.

One elementary principal observed that "in the past, common practice was “really kind of punitive and shaming in its approach. I wouldn't have seen that a couple years ago, before we started this [trauma engaged schools] work.” A special education paraprofessional said of a recent Restorative Practices/trauma engaged training that it was “the most relevant and applicable training we've received this year, in terms of the work we do with kids everyday and what we're trying to do with social emotional learning." 

One of the first and most important steps toward improving outcomes for students is developing a staff with a strong sense of their own ability to have an impact, also known as Collective Efficacy. And it appears that here in Alaska, investing in training and support for implementing Trauma Engaged practices is one way to make that happen.

As students begin to return to a normal school routine, these trauma engaged skills will be more important than ever, not just for teachers, but for all school staff.

Brush up on your skills with:
Meet our new Data and Evaluation Coordinator

Lauren Havens joined AASB in January as our new Data and Evaluation Coordinator (remote from Sitka). She has over 10 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector as an educator, evaluator, and program manager. Originally from Northern California, she now calls Sitka home, where previous roles include AmeriCorps Volunteer for the Sitka School District and School Program Coordinator for Sitkans Against Family Violence. She received her Master’s of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University in 2018, where she focused on creative approaches to program evaluation and adolescent health. Her role will focus on supporting AASB and STEPS partners to use data and evaluation to improve outcomes and share success stories. She is super excited to be a part of the team!
Lauren Havens
STEPS 2018 Gathering

Due to current health guidelines, we will be hosting our annual STEPS gathering virtually this year. Please keep an eye out for registration, and contact us if there is a topic that you are interested in providing training or a speaker (in-state or out of state). 

Save the date to take advantage of a variety of peer learning and training opportunities.
Students for the Juneau School District Tlingit Culture and Language Learning program greet the first annual STEPS conference attendees in 2018.