MinnCAN, a non-profit educational advocacy organization, took up a challenge set by Minnesota tribal leaders and parents in response to disappointing test scores and high school graduation rates for American Indian students. Rather than focus on struggling schools, MinnCAN was asked to look for schools that are doing very well by their American Indian students.
The organization highlighted three where scores on standardized assessments are impressive not only in comparison to other schools with large populations of Native students but also in relation to state averages for all students. Here is what the Indian education leaders at those schools have to say about principles and strategies that are working.
Anishinabe Academy, a city-wide pre-K to 8 magnet school in Minneapolis, is home to the High 5 program for American Indian pre-kindergarteners. After a year in High 5, a whopping 83 percent of children are ready for kindergarten, compared to just 47 percent of other Native kids. Danielle Grant, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, is director of Indian Education for Minneapolis. Grant credits two features of the program for the children’s success. First, it is a full-day program, whereas most pre-K programs are half-day.
“But what I really believe is making the big difference is the language immersion," says Grant. The program has an Ojibwe and a Dakota language classroom, which children attend in the afternoons. “A lot of research shows that second language acquisition for young children is really important for brain development,” and it is much faster in young children than in adults.
“By winter break these kids are saying phrases in Ojibwe or Dakota. By springtime they are speaking the languages,” says Grant. “The research shows that learning a second language is building new passageways in their brains, and then that [new capacity] is there for the rest of their lives.”
Grant says it’s a win-win situation for the kids and for American Indian cultures “because early language acquisition is doing two really great things—school readiness and language revitalization are happening hand in hand.”
Churchill Elementary, Cloquet
Phil Beadle, Fond du Lac Ojibwe, Indian Education Teacher at Churchill Elementary School, says the K-5 school has a really big emphasis on student success and faculty and staff who are fully committed to making sure that success happens. The school is next to the Fond du Lac Reservation; about 20 percent of its 500 students are American Indian.
The school’s strategy is based on three components—data, collaboration and relationships. “We keep very detailed notes on all our students. In our classrooms we do progress monitoring every single week, which means that every Wednesday with all the kids that are with us for math or reading, we do a quick test to see if they’re making gains. We plot this data over the course of the year. We use that data to collaborate with classroom teachers. If we see a child is doing well over, say, the last 10 weeks, we continue with his program. If we see the student steadily declining, and that’s in line with something that’s going on at home, we can look a little further at what we can do to offer more support.” Beadle says the collaboration among teachers is going on all day in both informal and formal settings.
That kind of collaboration requires an emphasis on relationships and at Churchill that focus extends to the children’s families. “There’s a lot of data that goes into our school’s approach. But just as important as the data is the relationships with the students and the family,” he says.
Detroit Lakes School District
The 2,900-student Detroit Lakes School District in northwestern Minnesota includes the White Earth Indian Reservation. About 375 students are American Indian, most Ojibwe, says Native American Education Activities Coordinator Joe Carrier, Turtle Mountain Chippewa.
Federal Title VII and Minnesota Success for the Future grant moneys support the Native American program focused on ensuring each student receives an academically and culturally appropriate education geared to his particular strengths, no matter the environment the child comes from. The district’s Professional Learning Communities approach has staff working in teams to evaluate and improve instruction for each child and provides professional development for teachers.
“We hold our students to a high standard,” says Carrier. We’re not just saying, ‘You can do well, you can do anything,’ but we're backing up that statement through programs and the attitude of the teachers, staff and principals.” Through presenters and speakers, he says, “We show them that you don’t have to give up your Native Americanness to get an education. Talking to our elders, parents and grandparents, I see a huge amount of pride in our culture. In order to be a happy child and a fulfilled child, you need to know who you are. Identity brings us pride.”