AFN panel shines a spotlight on education

University leaders took center stage at a panel discussion during the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention to discuss Article VII of Alaska’s Constitution which requires the state to establish and maintain a public school system, including a state university.

AFN Panel
Sandy Kowalski, director of Indigenous programs at UAF, speaks on a panel discussion with President Johnsen about education in Alaska. The panel was moderated by Regent Sherri Buretta (right).

The panel, “Investing in Our Future: Alaska’s Constitutional Responsibilities for Public Education” was moderated by Regent Sheri Buretta, who has served on the AFN Board since 1998. Panelists included Dr. Jim Johnsen, president, University of Alaska; Sandra Kowalski, member, Alaska Board of Education and director of Indigenous programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Chris Cooke, former staff attorney, Alaska Legal Services Corporation, who was instrumental in the Molly Hootch case that advocated for the state to provide high schools in rural Alaska.

President Johnsen discussed the constitutional responsibility for the State of Alaska to support its public university. He began with a brief history of the University of Alaska starting with the 1915 meeting between Judge Wickersham, Alaska’s delegate to the United States Congress, with Alaska Native chiefs and leaders, the Tanana Chiefs. That meeting, and tribal leaders’ commitment to education, laid the cornerstone for what later became the University of Alaska. He also repeated his message that it takes a great university to build a great state, and discussed the role universities and community campuses play in helping to set Alaska Native students on the path for future success, and in creating a strong pipeline of college-educated and workforce-ready youth.

Kowalski addressed the need for tribal leaders to support education and teaching Alaska Native languages in the classroom. She mentioned her work developing recommendations to improve Alaska’s K-12 educational system. The crowd applauded when she described a new State Board of Education committee that encourages tribal and rural community leaders to take a more active role in their local K-12 schools.

Regent Buretta concluded the panel discussion by challenging the audience to work together to focus on education excellence. Alaskans can change our culture in the next hundred years so the next generations will achieve greatness.