At least 14 Native Americans serve on school boards in Washington State, and their service is particularly timely. Some are the first Native Americans elected to their local school boards. Many are building intercultural understanding and relationships in their communities. All are serving during a time of significant change in Washington’s public schools. As of the start of the 2016-17 school year, districts are required by state law to incorporate Native culture, history and governance into their curriculum. The goal is to provide a more thorough and accurate teaching of history, better engage Native American students, and close the achievement gap.
Michael Vendiola, Swinomish, director of K-12 Native Education for Washington state, said a soon-to-come survey will determine how many school districts thus far have implemented or have begun implementing the curriculum, “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State.” He said in June that the number of trainings “have doubled in size and frequency in the last year.” The curriculum and training are free.
There are 322 school districts in Washington, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction with an enrollment of 1,084,359 students in K-12 as of 2015. Of those 1.3 percent are Native American and there are at least 14 Native Americans on school boards. Two Native American school board members shared with ICMN some of the issues, and advances, they are seeing in the Washington State school system.
Jennifer LeBret, Spokane, has been a member of the Wellpinit School Board for nearly three years and has been chairwoman since November 2016. Wellpinit is located on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and 87 percent of students are Native American. But only five of 35 teachers are indigenous. And those teachers were educated in school districts in which the teaching of Native American history and culture was insufficient and/or inaccurate, which “Since Time Immemorial” is now trying to correct.
“Yes, I have noticed a change in intercultural understanding, or at least more of an emphasis placed on talks around the importance of embedding tribal lifeways into the way lessons are taught and also incorporating traditional knowledge into the curriculum,” LeBret said.
“There has also been an increase in relationship building with both tribal departments and the community. We are still a long ways from where I would like to see those relationships, but we are moving in the right direction.
“I think most of the progress that has been made is due to the Indian Education Demonstration Grant directed by Apolonio Hernandez. Mr. Hernandez was hired a little over three years ago to bring programs that focus on incorporating indigenous knowledge into our curriculum, increasing college and career readiness in the hopes of ensuring greater long-term higher education and employment success, and increasing graduation rates. I personally donate my time to serve and facilitate the three curriculum teams that the school district currently has as part of the IED Grant.
“Mr. Hernandez has brought together Spokane Tribal members, elders, and employees from tribal departments, such as Language and Culture, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Tribal College to help create a land-based, tribe-specific, history, science and leadership curriculum that we feel will encourage more engagement from students. This engagement will come as a result of them experiencing a curriculum that is centered around their homeland and who they are.
“It has been a great experience bringing teams together made up of tribal community members and [Wellpinit School District] teachers with the goal of bringing who our Native learners are into the classroom and how Native learners process information differently. Through the grant, we also work with the University of Washington and have a number of teachers and community members participating in their Native Education Certificate program. We also are working with the Spokane Community College and Washington State University.”
Candice Wilson, a former vice chairwoman of the Lummi Nation, was appointed on July 28, 2016 to a vacant position on the Ferndale School Board. “It has been an honor to step into the role of serving our community and sharing our diversity,” she said. “I am fortunate to have the opportunity to continue the work that the board and the district have invested in over the years.
“The Native American Education [program] at Ferndale Schools offers our community the opportunity to learn and share our way of life with each other. We shared our Native American Education video at the Washington State School Directors Association, November 2016, at our Native American Programs presentation for the Ferndale School District. We host a monthly Parent Meeting for our Ferndale Schools’ Native American Programs and share updates on our Facebook page. We have shared our culture and our song and dance at the Ferndale Festival of Arts, Culture & Family Cultural Fair, March 24, 2017, when the Lummi Nation School Blackhawk Singers performed.”
“There are so many good things to share with you on how we share our community with each other. We cannot do this alone, we must do this together. I am proud to announce that Smak i’ ya’ [Matt Warbus], Lummi language teacher at Ferndale Schools, has been instrumental in teaching and sharing with our Native American students our way of life. He was honored at the Washington State Indian Education Association Conference 2016 for his leadership, and this year has been actively involved with the Whatcom Museum’s ‘People of the Sea and Cedar’ exhibit, which opened on July 15,” Wilson said.
“We have so much to offer one another. We must continue to share our culture and our teachings so that we may continue to nurture our relationship with one another. We are doing the best we can with moving forward with the ‘Since Time Immemorial’ curriculum. There may be challenges sometimes, but I believe we have so much to offer one another, that there are far more solutions to be able to work through the differences.
“The priorities for the upcoming year are to continue to build on what we are doing, by listening to and being responsive to our students, parents, and families in growing together for a thriving and abundant community.”