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School Success: Culture, Identity and Family

Native American language learning and family support systems could be helping Denver graduates achieve success in school.
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“Remember who you are, where you came from, who you represent, and your family,” John Gritts, Cherokee, a federal student aid director with the U.S. Department of Education in Denver, said in a keynote address at an honoring ceremony May 3 for Native graduates from Denver Public Schools (DPS).

His words resonated in light of a recently approved program for Native language learning in Colorado schools.

The languages are a big part of who you are and where you came from, say Lakota language teachers and Rose Marie McGuire, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, manager of DPS’ Native Education program.

It’s hard to measure precisely what effect Lakota learning had on the current graduates, two of whom took the class. Some students introduced themselves in fluent Lakota or other tribal languages.

The hope is that their class will represent an as-yet infant trend upward in Native youths’ graduation rates. But even though pilot Native language classes may have contributed to improvement, no one thinks they alone will turn things around.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, in 2006-07, the Native high school dropout rate was 16.6 percent, the highest in the DPS district whose overall rate was 10.4 percent. The Native graduation rate was 44.2 percent, lowest in the district and compared to a 52 percent graduation rate overall.

By 2008-09, however, the Native dropout rate was down to 12.7 percent and the following year it was lower still at 9.8 percent, while the overall DPS dropout rate hovers at around 7 percent. It’s expected that Native graduation rates—currently stalled at about half the overall rate—will also improve.

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“The dropout rate is something we talk about regularly,” said Eileen Masquat, Sicangu Lakota. “Seventy to eighty percent of the time it’s family life.” She teaches high school Lakota language classes.

Gwen Holmes, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, also a Lakota language teacher, believes that language learning helps students maintain their culture and identity and she feels it will help graduation rates. But she maintains that improvement will also depend on family life.

Cultural education and the family are important, said Masquat, but so is training for employment. In addition to teaching, she is workforce director for the Denver Indian Center (DIC) under a Department of Labor grant.

“A lot of our clients don’t have high school or a GED; they find themselves married with family but making at most $8 to $10 an hour,” she said, so it’s important to improve the dropout rate.

Proof that something in DPS’ Native program is working is in the accomplishments of Isaac Anderson, Cherokee/Mohawk/Blackfeet/First Nations, class of 2012. He’s had concurrent enrollment in Denver West High School and three colleges so that he’ll be a junior when he begins aeronautical studies.

His older brother, who graduated from MIT and is working on an M.D./Ph.D. in bioengineering, is another success story.

They give support to Gritts’ belief: “Education is important, but more important are the family.” He added that his brothers are still his best friends. “Your strengths are where you are from and your family.”