States told to improve American Indian student achievement

High school students
American Indian students at Minneapolis South High School prepared fry bread for Indian tacos.
MPR file photo

Education officials from Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota and Nebraska just wrapped up a first-of-its kind regional forum on American Indian student achievement. They're concerned about the fact that too many Indian students drop out of school, and too many don't do well on standardized tests. In Minnesota, 40 percent of American Indian students graduated from high school on time in 2006. That's half of the graduation rate for white students.

One of the nation's leading experts on American Indian education is Bill Demmert, a former top federal education official. Demmert, an Alaskan Native, believes that Indian students will be more successful in school if they learn their native language.

"If you don't develop a strong language base in the native language, in English, or both, you're going to have problems academically," said Demmert.

Bill Demmert
Bill Demmert is a leading researcher of Indian education.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Demmert said brain research shows that students who learn more than one language develop a larger brain. If Indian children learn their native language at a young age, they will have an easier time learning English, he said. Demmert also believes Indian student achievement will improve if schools teach about native culture.

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"It helps tell native students that their cultural base is important, that traditional knowledge, their histories, their legends are all worthwhile," Demmert said. "As opposed to only looking at someone else's history or someone else's culture."

Demmert notes that American history classes usually begin with the year 1492, and ignore the history of American Indians. He believes that sends a message to Indian students that their history doesn't matter, and many then lose their motivation in school.

Keith Moore agrees. Moore is South Dakota's Indian Education Director. Moore doesn't know the Lakota language because his mother was sent to a boarding school, where she was told to lose her native language and culture.

"If you don't develop a strong language base in the native language, in English, or both, you're going to have problems academically."

"I grew up a confused young man. My mom is full-blood Lakota, and my dad is an Irishman," Moore said. "And that developed so much confusion for you. So it makes sense to me in my head that if you understand who you were, knew your language, that you're better adjusted. That you can take on other things easier and take on other languages and accept them more prevalently if you know your own history and culture. And our kids don't."

Moore hopes that will change in South Dakota, where about 12 percent of public school students are American Indian. South Dakota passed an Indian Education Act this year that will require Indian culture and history to be incorporated into state academic standards. It also requires teachers to take a three-hour course on the topic.

"That's not big, it's not deep, three hours is three hours, three semester credit hours, but again, those are all things that are big for our state, symbolically, and then, also, some teeth, to say we need to move forward with this," said Moore. "Because we have issues in the state of South Dakota with our Indian students and retention, academic achievement, all those things we've talked about."

The state of Minnesota requires beginning teachers to have a working knowledge of tribal history and culture, and provides scholarships to train American Indian teachers. About two percent of Minnesota's public school students are American Indian.

And while Minnesota is considered a leader in Indian education, the state's Indian education supervisor said Minnesota schools could do more to help Indian students succeed. Yvonne Novack, a member of the White Earth tribe, said the state doesn't require schools to teach Indian culture, and very few schools teach native languages.

Yvonne Novack
Yvonne Novack manages Indian education for the state of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"If one of the big districts said immersion in Ojibwe is important to us, or immersion in Dakota is important to us, and actually set aside hard money, not grant money, then we could see some growth in immersion programs," Novack said. "But we don't have all the curriculum in that language, so it would take good language speakers to create classroom knowledge and lesson plans and all those key things."

Novack and other education officials also worry that if American Indian students are completely immersed in their native language, they may not do as well on standardized English reading tests required by the No Child Left Behind education law.

This week's conference was sponsored by the North Central Comprehensive Center, an arm of the federal department of education designed to help states meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. The education officials who attended say it will help them renew their efforts to improve Indian student achievement.