Equity & Diversity

Lessons Sought on Serving Native American Students

By Corey Mitchell — October 27, 2015 6 min read

The Council of Chief State School Officers is looking to a small-scale Montana program for help in reversing the fortunes of hundreds of thousands of American Indian children.

Despite federal attempts to raise the profile of the challenges that Native American students face, they are often an afterthought, said William Mendoza, the executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.

“They’re underrepresented, underserved, and darn-near invisible,” Mendoza said.

While Congress and the Obama administration have pressed the Bureau of Indian Education to overhaul operations at the schools it oversees on or near American Indian reservations, more than 90 percent of the 950,000 American Indian children attend traditional public schools run by local districts.

That makes district- and state-level intervention crucial.

To that end, CCSSO leaders took a fact-finding trip to Montana this month to observe the state’s Schools of Promise program, an effort to raise standards and expectations—and provide the additional support needed to meet them—in the state’s poorest-performing schools.

Established in 2009 by state schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, the initiative uses federal school improvement grants to fuel a partnership among administrators, teachers’ union leaders, and school board members to focus on the academic and social-emotional needs of struggling students in struggling schools. The affected schools, most on or near a reservation in remote parts of the state, have overwhelmingly served American Indian children from families beset by deep, generational poverty.

The grant money pays for mental-health support services for students and instructional coaches for teachers, administrators, and school board members.

Juneau describes the academic results as a “mixed bag.” In some schools, graduation rates have risen and test scores have improved only to regress once the federal funding ran dry.

But it may be the latest best way of addressing problems that have lingered for decades because it offers “sheer hope,” Mendoza said.

Problems Persist

Across the nation, Native American students are less likely to graduate from high school than any other racial or ethnic group, and the schools they attend are often not equipped to serve them.

Participants in a cross-country listening tour conducted in fall 2014 by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights and the White House Initiative on American Indian Education highlighted the hurdles to progress: disproportionate discipline, a complex process for filing federal civil rights complaints, and a lack of accurate portrayals of Native American culture and history in school lessons, among them.

“The listening tour revealed too many stories of school environments that, rather than building on the strengths of Native youth, are stifling their potential,” Mendoza said.

A report based on feedback gathered during the nine-stop, seven-state tour is part of an initiative the Obama administration launched in 2011 to support expanding opportunities and improving education outcomes for American Indian and Alaska Native students.

Another is the ongoing overhaul of the Bureau of Indian Education, the federal agency responsible for the education of roughly 50,000 American Indian children.

The central goal of the reorganization, known as the Blueprint for Reform, is to shift the agency’s role from provider to partner, paving the way for tribes to eventually run their own schools.

Opposed at the outset by some tribal leaders, the overhaul has hit snags and missed deadlines, but BIE Director Charles “Monty” Roessel remains optimistic.

“It’s given us an opportunity to engage with tribes more,” Roessel said. “Our system is broken, and we need to fix it.”

Trampling on Rights?

Not everyone agrees with the proposed fix, though.

A lawsuit filed by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota this month alleges that the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Education are trampling on tribal rights.

The complaint alleges that the changes would reduce staff at reservation education offices that provide federal oversight and resources—such as grant money and special education—to tribal schools.

The suit also argues that the federal government did not properly consult tribes about the reforms.

“Since litigation is pending on that issue, we are unable to comment directly on this matter at this time,” Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said.

The BIE is overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is housed within the Interior Department.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which represents tribal leaders in Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota also opposes the plan.

Roessel maintains that the process is designed to be collaborative, not combative.

“Ultimately, and most importantly, the decision is up to each tribe,” Kershaw said. “Whatever a tribe decides, we are committed to providing better support to all of our schools and honoring our relationship with tribes.”

Looking Ahead

A visit to Montana may have played a role in the Obama administration’s focus on American Indian education.

Montana was one of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s first stops during his “listening and learning” tour in 2009, his first year on the job. Back then, the state’s Schools of Promise effort was in its infancy.

Duncan met with students, parents, and school leaders and heard concerns that would crop up years later in the 2014 listening tour.

President Barack Obama’s June 2014 visit to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation also helped generate momentum for state-level work to aid American Indian students, said Lucy Fredericks, the director of Indian and multicultural education for the North Dakota education department.

“There has been a greater emphasis, definitely,” Fredericks said.

But more than a year has passed since the president’s visit to Indian country, and states with significant American Indian populations are still struggling in their search for solutions.

The problems hit close to home for Juneau, the Montana superintendent. She’s a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, who grew up on her father’s reservation.

“When you see these communities, and you see the struggles and challenges, ... you also see the promise that exists,” Juneau said. “We have a serious obligation to do as much as we can.”

Mirroring Montana’s undertaking to target high-poverty schools, North Dakota has focused its push on lowering dropout rates and boosting parental involvement. The state also conducted a survey in schools with significant American Indian populations to assess the needs of students and families, inside the classroom and beyond the wall of schoolhouses.

Acknowledging that many of the problems are deep-rooted, Fredericks said state leaders are expecting gradual improvement, not rapid turnaround.

American Indian students are the largest student subgroups in Montana and North Dakota, but the problems exist from coast to coast. The federal listening tour, which drew more than 1,000 people, made stops from New York to California and up to Alaska.

“Schools need to be the hubs in many of these communities,” said Chris Minnich, the CCSSO’s executive director.

Minnich, who made the trip to Montana, plans to take his findings to the council’s members when they meet for their annual policy forum next month.

One of the challenges they will face is helping students self-identify their ancestry and districts better identify American Indian students, possibly increasing the flow of federal funding to districts that serve them.

Minnich hopes the membership, which includes Roessel, the Bureau of Indian Education director, will find ways to improve outcomes and education for any number of American Indians and other marginalized student subgroups such as English-language learners.

“This is part of an agenda for children who need more than what we’re giving them,” Minnich said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2015 edition of Education Week as State Chiefs Look to Montana for Ways to Meet the Needs Of Native American Students

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