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Public schools in South Dakota to include American Indian education

PIERRE, S.D. - Students in South Dakota will hear different approaches to the state's history in the next school year: they will be exposed to American Indian culture and the language of the Lakota.

Much like Montana, which has implemented an Indian Education For All program, South Dakota will attempt to bridge educational achievement gaps between American Indian and non-Indian students, lower dropout rates and bring about a better understanding of the cultures.

Gov. Mike Rounds has signed a bill into law that will include curriculum changes that will teach about American Indian culture and language, and require teachers to upgrade their skills with American Indian studies courses.

The new law also officially creates the office of American Indian Education.

''It is a good thing we do to recognize the positive contributions of the Lakota culture and set the stage for sharing that with everybody across the state. And we hope to keep kids interested in school,'' said state Rep. Thomas Van Norman, member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

With the inclusion of the Lakota culture and language in the public school system, many people have expressed a belief that positive changes will occur in the state between the races.

Department of Education Secretary Rick Melmer stated that it has taken a long time to get to this point, and that it will take a long time to resolve any problems. South Dakota has a reputation of racist behavior toward the American Indian population.

The act requires that all new teachers, teachers from out of state and any teacher certified after 1993 complete a three-semester-hour course on South Dakota Indian studies. The course would include language and cultural awareness, history, educational theory and a background in traditional education and the implementation of strategies of American Indian learning styles.

The act also initiates a statewide American Indian language revitalization program. The Lakota language will be offered directly to American Indian students and any student who wishes to take the courses.

To guide the curriculum, an American Indian Advisory Council will be established that will consist of representatives from each of the eight reservations and selected American Indian educators from across the state.

It is expected that language and culture will be fused into existing curriculum and new classes will also be initiated over time.

The act is designed to reach out to American Indian students with the intent of closing the disparity in the achievement gap that most educators admit exists.

''I am working with Native American students in my school, and they are learning who they are and learning the rich language and culture of their ancestors, and they have gained a better responsibility toward their education,'' said Macia Zephier, Rosebud Sicangu and teacher at the Sioux Falls Roosevelt High School.

The bill originated from the governor's office and was unanimously supported by the House and Senate Education committees, with only one negative vote on the floor of the House and three no-votes from the Senate.

''This will bridge a gap, and we will see each other differently; and I hope the next generation of kids will see people differently across the fences,'' said Keith Moore, Indian education coordinator with the state Office of Education.

The American Indian population in the state is 12 percent, and 11 percent of students in the public school system are American Indian. The latest average ACT test score for the state was 21.8, with American Indian students scoring 17.5. The dropout rate for Native students is much higher than that of other students.

Educators have testified that by including Lakota language, culture and history into the public school curriculum, the test score and graduation rate gaps will slowly close.