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Education act proposed in South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. - When the new and slightly more moderate South Dakota Legislature opens the 2007 session this January, one item on the agenda will be to debate an American Indian Education Act that would include education on the Lakota culture within the statewide school curriculum.

The act, submitted by the state Secretary of Education's office in its draft form, would change the way South Dakota educates all students as it pertains to American Indian history and culture; it would also provide for an American Indian education council made up of members from the nine tribes in the state.

Education Secretary Rick Melmer met with tribal leaders and educators in early December to prepare a draft of the proposed act.

Melmer said it was important for students in all of the state's districts to have some instruction on American Indian language, culture, traditions and heritage.

The state's school population demographics point to a growing number of American Indian students in many school districts; American Indian students make up 10 percent of the student population in the state. Of the some 20,000 students in the state, 12,000 attend public schools.

The state's overall graduation rate is 89 percent; however, only 66 percent of the American Indian students graduate from high school, data show.

The proposed act would:

* Authorize the Office of Indian Education and create an American Indian Education Council, which has been proposed by Gov. Mike Rounds since 2003.

* Require the secretary of Education to appoint members to the American Indian Education Council. Members would include representatives from all nine tribes as well as educators from across the state.

* Require new teachers to complete a course in South Dakota Indian studies that will include cultural awareness, history, educational theory and background of the traditional tribal education, as well as strategies of American Indian learning styles and curriculum development.

* Direct the South Dakota Department of Education, in cooperation with the proposed Indian Education Advisory Council, to develop course content standards.

* Authorize the South Dakota Board of Education to integrate the content standards into the appropriate grade levels.

The office of Indian Education has not been officially authorized by the state Legislature, and funding is scarce.

Schools will not be required to develop a specific curriculum. American Indian culture, heritage and language may be incorporated into the current offering of courses, according to Keith Moore, state director of Indian education.

''I hope this will make a difference in the student dropout rates, and to make race relations better,'' Moore said.

''This will lay the framework to do some important work.''

American Indian educators have asked that the public school curriculum contain the history, culture and some language for all students in the state. Many non-Indian state residents, who live adjacent to some of the reservations, know very little about the American Indian experience.

Moore said that at meetings of educators in Western states that weaknesses in the South Dakota education system pointed out that the state had not engaged American Indian education in an acceptable manner previously.

The proposed act, in its draft form, is what Moore called a ''meat and potatoes proposal'' that is not encumbered by details so that legislators will not get involved with minor objections.

''We are not looking for ground-shaking things to happen in my tenure. I hope it will be a change for the next generation of kids,'' Moore said.

''We are taking baby steps.''

South Dakota American Indian educators point to Montana's ''Indian Education for All'' program as a good example for South Dakota classrooms to follow. Montana requires all schools to incorporate American Indian history and culture in the classroom.

The act proposed in South Dakota does not have a funding mechanism built into the wording.