By Vernae Hasbargen, MREA Legislative Consultant
The crisis is indisputable: Native American students finish high school at half the rate of others, putting Minnesota dead last of the fifty states in their graduation rate.
It is statistics like that, plus the fact that Native students comprise only 2 percent of the school-age population but account for 20 percent of Minnesota’s special education population, that led Dennis Olson, the newly appointed Director of Indian Education at the Minnesota Department of Education, to issue a “call to action.”
Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said recently, “Now is the time to act because the state has a supportive state legislature and governor.” Earlier this fall Governor Dayton convened a Summit to create an action plan and the Department is taking a more collaborative approach by listening to Tribal leaders before making policy. Olson’s appointment is a perfect example because he is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band and its former Education Commissioner.
Earlier this year, MREA Executive Director Fred Nolan convened an American Indian Advisory Committee headed by Superintendent John Varner of Onamia. The group meet again at MREA’s Fall Conference to further their action plan.
As Nolan put it, “Rural Minnesota is where 67 percent of the American Indian students are, therefore the achievement gap is a rural issue. We can’t blame this one on the urban core.” The MREA platform calls for categorical funding not competitive grants to fund Success for the Future and enlarging the School Mental Health program.
According to Lee Carlson, a St. James teacher and MREA board member, the Advisory Committee has raised awareness, “It just seemed natural that you would invite the school administration and the tribal council reps, [but] we found out that did not happen with regularity – but needed to.”
Varner has valuable experience working with Olson and building trust between his district and the Mille Lacs band. He along with Superintendents Rae Villebran of NettLake, Steve Cairns of Bagley, and Brenda Reed of BrownsValley, are key players in guiding MREA’s action in the months ahead.
Four Key State Actions …
1. Task Forces
The state has convened an Integration Task Force which includes Superintendents Rick Ellingworth of Redwood Area and Deb Wanek of Pelican Rapids. Among the policies they will explore is extending integration revenue to districts with high concentrations of Native students.
Lawmakers are also focused on creating a seamless transition from secondary to post secondary for all students, not just Native American. A Career Pathways and Technical Education Task Force is preparing recommendations which we will share with you in a later update.
2. Teacher Training
The Governor’s Summit called for teacher programs to include native language and culture in their training. Carlson says attaching value to the American Indian culture would have a wide spread positive effect on the younger generation, strengthening the connections with those most able to support those students instead of the disconnect that exists currently.
He points to the high turnover rate for staff and administration in the school districts that serve these students. “You don’t just step into a district of this type and get things to work. You must work with the Tribal Council and that takes years to build up a trust level high enough to be effective.”
3. “Find these kids”
The Commissioner was passionate in strongly urging administrators in districts with high numbers of Native students who dropped out before graduating to “Go back and find these kids.” She said changes in the GED tests to earn a diploma will become more difficult so action must be taken soon.
There is funding until the age of 21 for these programs, she said, “So it’s important to them and to you.”
4. Promote best practices
The Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MinnCAN) just released a “Native American Student Achievement” report and a list of the schools that made the greatest gains with Native students last year. Learn more. View the top 10 list for elementary, middle and high schools.
According to Dan Sellers, Executive Director, “We challenged ourselves to shift our thinking away from “What’s wrong?” and toward “What’s right?”
Carlson wholeheartedly agrees, “The Summit’s clear message was ‘There is nothing wrong with our kids, it is the system.’” That’s why all these actions are long over-due.