The American School Year

So, here's an idea.

Public schools across the country generally start in August or September, take a short break in December, continue in January, take another short break in March or April, and end in May or June. The time between August/September of one year and May/June of the next is known as "the school year." Whatever extra knowledge we may have on the history of this artifice (I need to do some more research), most of us (middle-class white kids?) accept that this is just the way things are.


This week, my Issues in Alaska Native Education class started, and I already have a growing list of great quotes from Professor Ongtooguk. The one relevant to this post?

"The school district did not consult the caribou."

(OK, honestly,  I don't remember if those are his exact words, but the concept of consulting caribou was definitely there and it stuck with me.)

Me, 8 or 9, consulting the caribou my sister shot when she was 10 or 11.
That's a story for another time, perhaps.

Here's the thing. According to this professor, Alaska Natives make up 25 percent of the student population in Alaska. Many of these students, I'm told, still participate in the subsistence lifestyle that requires them to, with their families, hunt for wild game — such as caribou. But see, caribou migrate, and not according to the current public school calendar. Maybe having summers off is nice for a lot of people, but why not have more, shorter breaks instead of one long break in the middle?

I hear a lot of Alaska Native students miss a lot of school to engage in this hunter-gatherer way of life. We all know how affected we are by our parents' decisions, especially when we're of school age, no matter our ethnicity. So is it fair to just tell the indigenous people of this state that they should home school their kids or something in order to obtain a nationally accepted form of education and participate in Alaska Native traditions? I don't think so.

Ignoring the "life's not fair" argument for now, let's say we follow Japan's lead, for example: April to July, September to December, January to March. That's their school year. How might that work for us?

I know this is not a new discussion in education, but it's one I would like to revisit more in depth. After all, if we can institute a consumerist "Fair Day" Friday in the Mat-Su Borough School District calendar because a bunch of students skip school for it anyway, why can't we look at changing the school calendar to reflect something like the traditional Native lifestyle? "Politics," is probably the answer to that, but I for one will continue to give thought to the idea of restructuring our school calendars to meet more local needs (and do my questions even reflect a "need"??).

Feel free to question me on this or add your own thoughts to this word soup.

*Addendum: Here's a recent story on a more "subsistence style" calendar that's being implemented next year, albeit not for the noblest of reasons...


  1. What a great point, Caitlin! I didn't realize that there was a 'Fair Day' in Mat-Su. That's kind of hilarious when you consider how obvious it is that we can accommodate students who join their families in hunting and other subsistence activities. Thanks for a very timely and conscientious post. :-)

    1. A friend also just brought this relevant news story to my attention:

  2. As far as I understand the history of it, the Western school year is based off of the agricultural calendar with a long break in the planting/growing/harvesting season and shorter breaks, as you mentioned, based on the Christian calendar for Christmas and Easter.

    1. I've heard that too, but how many people in Alaska exclusively farm for a living? I know we have farmers, Palmer is known for that, but what are the actual statistics? And does the current school calendar *actually* account for families' agricultural needs? I just wonder if we're instinctively perpetuating these "facts" about the educational system in Alaska that may not be true (anymore).


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