Seattle’s new superintendent of public schools, Dr. Larry Nyland, was scheduled to meet with Native education advocates on December 16 at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center to hear their concerns and discuss ways to improve Native education in the district.
The relationship between the district and the Native American community is strained over the demise of the district’s American Indian Heritage Early College High School Program; the lack of implementation of a curriculum that teaches the state’s Native history, cultures and governance; and the denial of a request by a student group to have a school assembly on Native American history.
According to Sarah Sense-Wilson, president of the Urban Native Education Association, the district’s practices and lack of investment in Native education are having a negative impact on student performance.
According to a demographic breakdown from Seattle Public Schools, some 2,922 students – 5.9 percent of the district’s student population – was Native American in 2012-13, the last year for which data is available. The total student population was 49,864.
American Indian/Alaska Native/First Nations students score 30-40 percent lower than their non-Native peers on state standardized exams, according to UNEA. And Native students have the highest dropout rate, beginning in the seventh grade with another spike in the 10th grade, according to Sense-Wilson.
By contrast, at its peak, the American Indian Heritage Early College High School Program had a 100 percent graduation rate and all graduates pursued higher education.
UNEA says the district’s practices and lack of investment in Native education conflict with a 2012 school board policy designed to ensure educational and racial equity in its district schools; and its five-year strategic plan, which states the school district will “Elevate professional practice by investing in effective, culturally responsive teachers, staff and leaders.”
In addition, in fall the Seattle School Board approved a resolution replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. The school board’s resolution states that it “seeks to combat prejudice, eliminate discrimination and institutionalized racism, and to promote awareness, understanding, and good relations among Indigenous Peoples and all other segments of our district.”
Sense-Wilson, Oglala, said Native students “always get put on the back burner” because they comprise a relatively small demographic. But part of the problem, she said, is high turnover in district leadership.
Nyland, former superintendent of the Marysville School District, which has a close relationship with the Tulalip Tribes, is the fourth superintendent in four years of the state’s largest school district: The late Maria Goodloe-Johnson’s 3.5-year tenure ended in 2011 when she was fired over questionable spending in the district's small-business contracting program. Susan Enfield, the district’s chief academic officer, served briefly as interim superintendent. Jose Banda served as superintendent from 2012-14; during his tenure, the American Indian Heritage Early College High School program was dismantled and its school site scheduled for demolition to make way for a new middle school. UNEA and others lobbied successfully to save the school building – it was declared a historic site by a city committee – but the Indian Heritage program was merged with another school’s social justice program and moved to another school site.
In a December 5 letter to UNEA, Nyland wrote that opening and sustaining an Indian Heritage High School would require enrollment of 90-100 students and outside funding for an additional two staff members.
In response to a request from Sense-Wilson, Nyland wrote that the district “will investigate the possibility” of establishing a classroom program, similar to one for students of Mexican and Central American heritage, that would address Native American students’ academic needs and reinforce cultural values and traditions. Sense-Wilson said the graduation rate for students that participate in the program, Proyecto Saber, is 98 percent.
Nyland wrote that Proyecto Saber costs $135,000 and $150,000 per school -- $90,000-$100,000 for a certified teacher plus $45,000-$50,000 for an instructional assistant, including salary and benefits.
“I have asked that we identify an appropriate site for such a program [for Native students] and consider funding for such a program in the upcoming budget work,” he wrote. “In the event that we secure funds to create such a program, it will be geographically located based on Native American student data and school support for the program.”
Nyland wrote that the district “will give serious consideration” to UNEA’s request that the former American Indian Heritage Early College High School site be renamed in honor of the late Robert Eaglestaff, under whose leadership as principal the school enjoyed its greatest success. He wrote that the district is introducing the “Since Time Immemorial” curriculum in elementary schools.
In addition, Ingraham High School – which denied the students’ request for a Native American culture assembly – will present a multi-cultural assembly “and has invited several student ethnic groups to participate.”
“Longer term, our goal is to further educate staff in appropriate ways to have every student experience positive contemporary experiences around their culture while avoiding negative stereotypes … Staff will also be participating in culturally appropriate professional development.”