Growing charter school teaches with culture, language

Murals highlighting important traditional cultural events fill a wall in the school gym in Naytahwaush, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A charter school on the White Earth Indian Reservation is using traditional culture and language to get kids and parents excited about education.

The aging brick school building sits across the road from a small housing development in Naytahwaush, a remote reservation village of about 500.

For generations, this school was part of the Mahnomen school district. School officials from 20 miles away made decisions about the classes and the kids.

Now, it's a charter school designed around community, culture and language. The school Web site hosts video language tutorials produced by third-graders.

Kent Estey runs the media center, a small room crammed with computer equipment. He said the language videos are one way to connect the school with the community.

"So we have students actually teaching their parents and reminding their grandparents of the Ojibwe language that is lost," Estey said. "Technology is a wonderful tool."

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The students also publish their own books and they just started a weekly podcast.

Charter School Co-Director Don Nordlund said creating projects the rest of the community can use and enjoy gets kids excited about school.

"How do you hook somebody to be interested in learning? Culture is a vehicle we can use for kids to learn," Nordlund said. "We have some projects we put on iPods. They take them home and the grandparents and parents are excited about that. And when they get excited about it the kids come back and want to do more and it just feeds itself."

One indication of the schools success is seen in test scores. Students made what's called adequate yearly progress the last two years under the federal No Child Left Behind act.

The Naytahwaush Community Charter school sponsor is Volunteers of America. Director of Charter School Authorizing Katie Piehl said students are succeeding despite the challenges of poverty. She said 95 percent of students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. Piehl said poverty is often an indicator of lower student achievement.

Naytahwaush students
Naytahwaush Community Charter School students practice math skills by measuring their heads on Jan. 15, 2010, in Naytahwaush, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"Sometimes there's the excuse that there are so many challenges success isn't possible," Piehl said. "When you can see success in a school that has a myriad of other challenges, you can see and understand this can work."

School officials say the goal over the next two years is to accelerate student's academic progress.

There are just over 100 students in grades K-6, but enrollment is steadily growing as more parents choose to send their children to the charter school. The school hopes to add two new classrooms by next fall.

Until five years ago, the Naytahwaush elementary school was part of the Mahnomen school district. Mahnomen Superintendent Jerry Nesland said the charter school caused a dip in enrollment at Mahnomen, but he said new tribal housing built near Mahnomen brought additional families to the community, so the school enrollment is holding steady.

But some parents felt they had no voice in how the school was run.

Crystell Tibbetts went to school here 20 years ago. Now, she has two sons attending the charter school and she's the school's business manager.

"I feel for years Naytahwaush children were always put on the back burner," Tibbetts said. "I mean for years it was if they passed, if they failed, whatever. They just needed people that cared about them."

Tibbetts said as a parent she wants her children to have a chance to prove they can succeed. She thinks the charter school gives them that chance.

"I hope we can show that our kids can learn out here," she said. "I want them to go and set standards for the other kids. I want them to be equal."

About two-thirds of the school staff live in the small remote community, several grew up going to this school and many of them have children at the charter school.

Several husband and wife teams work at the school. Fourth-grade teacher Becky Estey chairs the school board and her husband Kent runs the school media center. She said Naytahwaush wanted a school that put kids first, and shared the community values.

Estey said community support for the school is clear; more than 90 percent of parents attend parent teacher conferences. And in the past two years student attendance was 93 and 96 percent.

"When it comes to perfect attendance the kids can earn a bicycle if they're here every day," she said. "I think last year it was 27 bicycles, the year before it was 25 for perfect attendance for the whole year. This is a very comfortable place for them, a safe place for them. They know what to expect and their attendance is phenomenal."

Improving school attendance was one of the goals when the charter school opened. Co-Director Terri Anderson said that's why the school emphasizes its connection to the community.

"We've had a lot of support from families," Anderson said. "It's key that they help get their children here to school so we can do what we need to do here. We definitely attribute some of those design components to the success our kids are starting to have."

The community support is creating one challenge; the school is running out of space. The school board is talking about plans for an expansion.

Terry Tibbetts grew up in Naytahwaush and is now a tribal council representative and on the charter school board.

Tibbetts said he's working to get funding to expand this school, and someday build a junior high and high school nearby. He said their ultimate plan is to take their kids all the way from baby steps to graduation.

"We want to be in charge of our own kids' education here. We want to say this is our education system," he said.

Tibbetts calls education the golden ticket to escape poverty and said successful students will help build successful communities on the reservation in the future.