Alaska covers an area that is approximately one-quarter of the entire United States; the municipality of Anchorage alone covers 1,961 square miles.1 Nine Star Enterprises and its partner Human Resources Corporation (HRC) serve a region that covers 27,220 square miles, with a population of only 334,124 (Anchorage’s population is 42 percent of the state’s total population.)2 Extrapolations of data from the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey indicate that 130,000 Alaskan adults were at the lowest levels of literacy.
Like many states in the “Lower Forty-Eight,” Alaska’s population is extremely diverse, and this diversity drives a demand for English literacy services. In Anchorage schools, students speak more than 100 languages3. In one Anchorage neighborhood, for example, more than 40 languages are spoken in one elementary school alone. Unemployment and poverty rates are also of concern. With up to 23 percent of families with female heads of household living in poverty4, the adult education services provided by Nine Star and its partners are crucial.
“Anchorage is a truly urban city. We have all the same problems, plus little light for five months, frozen roads, and a long winter.”
David Alexander, director of Nine Star Enterprises.
For many years, Alaska’s economy was based primarily on natural resource industries, such as petroleum, forest products, and seafood. Even with the state’s high cost of living, Alaskans typically did not need a high school diploma to earn a good salary. However, the crash in world oil prices in the mid-1980s, the closing of pulp and saw mills in the 1990s, and the depletion of fish stocks and competition from farmed fish have all had a major impact on how Alaskans earn a living. Growth in the tourism, healthcare, construction, and business service industries has now created a demand for employees with a high school diploma or at least a minimum level of math and literacy skills.
Responding to this increased demand for literacy skills is complicated by Alaska’s unique geography. Much of the state’s population resides in remote areas, making it difficult and expensive to connect people to services. Even where public transportation is available, many small hamlets are not connected to the system.
Given these circumstances, the GED diploma has always been seen as a viable alternative to a high school diploma. In many of the smallest villages around the state, there is limited secondary education available and no formal adult education programs. In some, the state, in collaboration with village schools or Native Alaskan corporations, offers GED programs by flying instructors into the villages for short periods of time. Between these visits, teacher aides or volunteers (usually someone living in the village) help tutor students. Other learners take advantage of the PBS television program, GED Connection, or work on their studies via correspondence programs or the Internet. On average, 25 percent of diplomas issued in Alaska each year are based on passing the GED test (compared to about 14 percent nationally5), and the program has earned a high degree of respect in the state, accepted by employers and the state university.
Roughly 960 GED diplomas are earned yearly by students enrolled in preparatory programs run by Nine Star and its partners. This represents almost 50 percent of all GED diplomas earned in Alaska.
Alaska’s seasonal economy presents another challenge. Almost three-quarters of the state’s workers are in occupations that are either highly or moderately seasonal.6 Industries such as construction, seafood processing, tourism, and retail sales, for example, are busy during the warmer months, but they slow down or halt completely during the winter. For adult education programs, this often means that many students must interrupt their studies during the warm months to work.
MAKING THE MOST OF RESOURCES
Alaska provides more than $1.5 million in funds for adult basic education and related literacy services each year, with an additional $967,444 (fiscal year 2003-04) coming from the federal government. With just three state-level adult basic education staff, partnerships among local programs are essential.
1U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census of Population, Housing Units, Area, and Density, Summary File 1, Geographic Comparison Table, Alaska. Available at: http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/GCTTable?_bm=y&-context=gct&-ds_name=DEC_2000_SF1_U&-mt_name=DEC_2000_SF1_U_GCTPH1R_US9S&-tree_id=4001&-redoLog=true&-_caller=geoselect&-geo_id=04000US02&-format=ST-2|ST-2S&-_lang=en. [02/11/09] (back to text)
4U.S. Census Bureau, Profile of Selected Economic Characteristics: Census 2000, Summary File 3, Alaska. Available at: http://factfinder.census.gov/bf/_lang=en
5American Council on Education, Center for Adult Learning & Education Credentials, Introduction to the GED. (back to text)
6Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Research and Analysis Section, Alaska Economic Trends—Seasonal Employment, July 2003. Available at http://www.labor.state.ak.us/research/trends/jul03seasonality.pdf. [8/14/03] (back to text)