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Facing the Truth of Indian Schooling

On March 9, in a historic landslide vote, South Dakota’s State House Legislators voted 60 to 8 in favor of allowing Governor Dennis Daugaard to use his budget to fund three Indian public schools in searching for and implementation of alternatives to the conventional K-12 schooling model. Previous to this on February 3, the Senate side voted 34 to 1, so together, both Houses enacted the the landmark Indian schooling legislation.

Former Vice Chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Richard Tuffy Lunderman says, “We know right now, and for years, that what we are doing in schools for Indian children is not working ! We absolutely know this from the cold hard facts that the data shows annually ! This data is indisputable ! Everybody absolutely knows this! Everybody – the BIE, NCA/AdvancED, Institutions of Higher Learning, Boards and administrators of all our public and BIE grant schools know this, yet what do we do about it?” Tuffy often quotes Albert Einstein who said, "If you continue to do something that doesn’t work, this a definition of Insanity."

The idea and offering of an alternative schooling achievement bill by the Governor and now supported by State legislators, in a vote of 94 to 9, is beyond remarkable. It is unprecedented, but even this is an understatement. Marilyn Ferguson, the noted author, wrote, “Our past is not our potential, in any hour we can choose to liberate the future.” The vote and action of SD’s State legislature certainly represents a positive step in the consideration of educating Indian students.

Soon the South Dakota Department of Public Instruction will be announcing the particulars of how the Request For Proposal will be handled. This means public schools in SD, that have a majority of Indian students, will soon be eligible to apply for $ 600,000 in funding, designed to be spent over a three year period. The schools selected would be representing an acknowledgement of the data, and are thereby theoretically taking the position that they are committed and ready to explore and instigate systemic schooling changes on behalf of their Indian students.

This enlightenment action and funding in no way is an indictment against administrators or teachers. These hard working school personnel are doing exactly what they’ve learned and are made to do by federal and state laws. In fact, nobody enjoys failure, and in general the vote and action by the State is a statement about an apparent mediocre way to motivate students, not just Indian students. Richard Ingersoll, a teacher burn out researcher says, 40 to 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years. WHY? It’s not real rewarding work.

In the hearings that were held by both education committees on the Senate and House sides of the SD State legislature, questions were asked regarding compliance issues required by State and Federal law. Melody Schopp, the State’s education director, quickly and truthfully responded to these extremely relevant kinds of concerns. In a matter of fact way, she more than less said, “ Of Course ! and Not a Problem ! ”

Truthfully, there are an array of school models of learning operating in the United States that have creatively moved away from the redundant K-12 operation. These systems are different in delivery, content, and purpose, yet they are in compliance with State standards, which means cool and exciting initiatives exist because smart caring educators have already done it. The difference is they have been done to assist and enhance learning of Non-Indians.

For instance, in South Dakota, and probably one of the only places where innovative schooling is truly being conducted in SD is at Harrisburg High School. At this school, Superintendent Kevin Lein, has flipped over this community’s school to what is called “Customized Learning”.

This model does not force students to learn curriculum in a specified time frame. Instead, it is a mastery based understanding of learning. Students move around in the school environment, from classroom to classroom, when they are ready. It’s amazing to see if a person is only familiar with the robotic way students and teachers do the knee jerk with the sound of a bell in regular systems.

In this computerized IEP kind of a system, students get up and move onto the next subject area when they are comfortable with their mastery level. What a person is actually witnessing is each student learning at their own pace. What is also witnessed is ownership and responsibility or maturity development.

As far as teachers go, they become facilitators of learning for students. After learning facilitation skills, Kevin Lein reports it would be impossible to go backward or back to the regular system.

This “Customized Learning” model at Harrisburg is but one of many successful ways the routine K-12 institutions can be wisely reconfigured to meaningful habitats to become a valuable component of community life. The majority of State legislators in both committees were most certainly not ignorant to such habitats or the varying needs of children and expressed knowledge with a very openness to do something different for Indian children.

The task is to get the folks responsible for educating students on reservations on the same knowledge page. The Governor, the SD State education director, the SD State legislators get it, but …. “ You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink..” This phrase is appropriate for educators everywhere, not only on Indian reservations. In other words, you can inform people to the truth of failing data, but will they do something about it!

The question is: Will a public school with a large enrollment of First Americans come forward to wrestle and study how they can deal with the lack of achievement in their school and then propose to do something about it?

“To be or not to be, that is the Question?”

—Willie Shaking Spear

Dave Archambault, Sr., is best known as the Indian School Whisper, and aka, Joe Bucking Horse. He has been a voice for future generations by advocating empowerment schooling models for Indian learners of all ages. He has earned a master degree from Penn State and has headed the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, American Indian College Fund, Sitting Bull College, with experience as Tribal Councilman, School Superintendent, Principal, and currently sits on a BIE grant school and Fort Yates public school board, and is the chairman of the Board for the American Indian Business Leaders organization