American Indian, Alaska Native Education Get White House Attention

By Diette Courrégé Casey — December 13, 2011 2 min read
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The White House has announced a new initiative to expand and improve educational opportunities for American Indian and Alaska Native students, and leaders of those communities welcome the news.

The president signed an executive order earlier this month to give those students more opportunities to learn their native languages, cultures, and histories and to receive an education that prepares them for college and a career.

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the appointment of William Mendoza to lead the newly created White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. Mendoza, an Oglala and Sicangu Lakota, is a former teacher and principal who has been working as a director and senior advisor to the secretary on American Indian and Alaska Native education policies.

In a press release, Mendoza said the initiative will work to identify ways for dropouts to re-enter education or training programs, acquire industry-recognized certifications, and find jobs. He also wants to expand access to high-quality education programs, especially in STEM fields.

“We’re working hard to reduce the American Indian and Alaska Native student dropout rate and making sure students who stay in high school are ready to start their career by the time they complete college,” Mendoza said. “The Obama Administration is also committed to strengthening the capacity of [Tribal Colleges and Universities], which play an important role, often serving as anchors in some of the country’s most remote areas.”

Recent studies have shown show that a wide achievement gap exists between American Indian and Alaska Native students and the rest of the country. They have a higher dropout rate than any other ethnic group, and many native languages are on the verge of extinction. American Indian and Alaska Native students often live in the country’s poorest and remote areas.

Reaction to the initiative was positive. The Indian Country Today Media Network, a national platform for natives, based in New York City, reported that two U.S. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Dan Boren, D-Okla., the ranking member of the panel’s Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, praised the administration for its effort.

“The Obama administration is stepping up efforts to keep more students in Indian Country from dropping out, and indeed thriving in educational settings,” Markey said in the article. “From Newtonian calculus to Native culture, the educational system in tribal communities must better serve the scholars of the future, and this initiative should help.”

The North Kitsap Herald in Poulsbo, Wash., reported Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman was among the 565 tribal representatives who heard the news during the Tribal Nations Conference, and he said in the article he appreciated the opportunity to meet with high-ranking government leaders. He credited Obama’s administration with numerous accomplishments in Indian country.

“We haven’t had a president before provide this much access with tribal leaders,” he said in the article.

The story also reports Obama was adopted by the Crow Nation in 2008 and given the name “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”

Earlier this month, the White House also recognized 11 Native American leaders among its “Champions of Change” for finding unique ways to address challenges in their communities. Their accomplishments include starting suicide prevention programs, preserving traditions and languages, preventing bullying, and building safer communities.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.