Breaking the lock on American Indian student success

Posted in Community Leadership, Vibrant Rural

45 – 10 – 31

This combination does not unlock the untapped potential found in textbooks piled high in a student’s locker. Instead, this string of digits stands in the way of many students’ success.

45 – the percent of American Indian students who graduate from high school

10 – the percent of American Indian students who have a bachelors degree of higher

31 – the percent of American Indians living in poverty

Education Week recently published a series entitled “Education in Indian Country,” exploring the state of education on American Indian reservations.

Mr. Cuny, principal at Pine Ridge High School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, is featured in the series. He says the same issues are present at Pine Ridge that he saw while at a tribal school in southern California.

“The same questions of identity, cultural isolation, and poverty. What I really want for our students is for them to feel positive about being Native American. I want them to see that as their biggest strength from which they can build on.”

The article goes on to say…

Research studies have shown that Native American students who are taught their native languages and in ways that connect directly to who they are and where they live, perform better academically than their peers who are not.

There has been a big push for native language learning in rural Minnesota schools recently. For example, through a Blandin Foundation grant, students at Deer River High School were introduced to Ojibwe language lessons via telepresence. With the number of fluent Native speaking tribal members waning due to age, now is the time to act.

But as Mr. Cuny identified, language isn’t the only bucket that needs filling. Cultural history, one that has too often been distorted, is exceedingly important to the foundation of American Indian education.

“They want to know why things are the way they are today,” Mr. Clifford [teacher at Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota] says. “As long as students learn about their history, I think they, too, can get a sense of the responsibility to be a Lakota, and to interpret what that means to them.”

Closer to home, last month the Circle of Healing, a group of Native and non-Native people in the Itasca County area interested in shared learning and building cross-cultural relationships, hosted a performance entitled “The Great Hurt,” which explored the experiences and legacy of American Indian boarding schools through eye-witness accounts.

In a local newspaper article, Patsy Bernhjelm, a member of Circle of Healing, said, “it’s time to educate ourselves about the legacy these schools left for American Indian families and communities, and support the journey of healing that is beginning to rebuild the languages, cultures and sense of community that this policy attempted to destroy.”

To rebuild American Indian culture and language, many reservations are starting with their littlest learners. The Niigaane Ojibwe Language Immersion Program at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school started a decade ago with one kindergarten class. It’s purpose wasn’t to teach the language of Ojibwemowin, but to use the language to teach all school subjects. The Native language now “naturally rolls off students’ tongues.”

The road to educational success at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school was paved by building on existing cultural strengths. Similarly, the Blandin Reservation Community Leadership Program is training Minnesota’s American Indian leaders to focus on existing gifts and resources so they can recognize sources of resilience in their communities and in themselves. By pin-pointing and harnessing sources of resilience, reservation leaders, parents and educators can lift up students by connecting their learning to their vibrant culture.

As Montana superintendent of schools Denise M. Juneau said in the Education Week article:

“It always comes down to a caring adult, the relevancy of their learning, and engagement,” she says. “For Indian children, that engagement is a sense of belonging, but they’ve got to have the good math instruction, too.”