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South Dakota moves forward on tribal partnerships in education

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- South Dakota is still working on ideas and concerns
over cultural education within the public school system.

It has been a long time since there has been an office for Indian
education. Tribal leaders and tribal educators have asked that the state's
public schools teach Indian country's history, language and culture for
years and still find the same problems in the schools statewide that were
discovered more than 100 years ago.

"We are talking about the same things today that were talked about in a
study done at the turn of the 19th century," said Keith Moore, Sicangu
Lakota, Indian education coordinator.

"We are talking about the same things today: drop-out rates, kids not
reading, poor attendance. Here we are; let's try something, even if it's
not right," Moore said.

The perennial problems in education loom as the No. 1 challenge and the
state needs to work on a lot of things, admitted Rick Melmer, secretary of
education.

"I don't know if we can afford not to look at some interventions. We don't
have any unrealistic expectations. I also believe we [the state] can make a
difference," Melmer said.

Roughly 12 percent of all public school students in South Dakota are
American Indian, and projections show that number will increase -- yet
South Dakota does not require any cultural curriculum in public schools.
The same student percentage ratio is recorded in Montana. The two states
are very similar in demographics, yet Montana has more activity in cultural
education and training than its sister state.

Melmer said he would like to pattern South Dakota's efforts after that of
Montana or New Mexico. New Mexico has more curriculum requirements and
Montana has articles in its constitution stating that American Indian
curriculum has a place in the education of all Montana students. The
states' laws pave the way for partnership agreements to be made with tribes
to create an approved curriculum within any school.

"New Mexico is getting their curriculum fused with Native American culture
so that teachers are teaching their kids Native American culture. Now, we
are not doing a good job on that, we need to do a better job.

"The teachers in Sioux Falls or Aberdeen [S.D.] are all teaching the same
thing on the culture. A lot of our teachers are not knowledgeable of what
is going on -- it's not their fault. We need to start raising awareness of
what's going on around the state," Melmer said.

South Dakota is playing catch-up. Moore's position is new and there has
been no American Indian education coordinator or equivalent for many years.
One person, Moore and Melmer agreed, could not do all that is necessary:
but one person can still make a difference.

The Council of Chief State School Officers held a meeting in Rapid City and
primarily discussed American Indian education. Partnerships and
strengthening partnerships was the theme of the conference.

"It's going to be a slow process with partnerships [in South Dakota],"
Moore said.

"Time and effort: that's been the issue with our state over the years. For
a period of time it goes well, and then a new administration comes in and
it doesn't go well.

"We have to build long-term relationships and they know we are in for the
long haul," he said.

Since tribes and states both change administrations, recommendations that
came out of conference workshops were to set down resolutions, ordinances
and memorandums of agreement between a state and tribes in order to sustain
a continuity of cooperation.

Cultural education and culture-based measurements received a lot of
discussion at the conference. Data show that when language and culture
becomes part of the curriculum American Indian students improve
academically, are more likely to stay in school and graduate.

As an example, North Middle School, a public school in Rapid City, displays
Lakota art and cultural references throughout the school. North Middle,
according to Principal Jeanne Burkhard, has reduced the frequency of
tardiness and absenteeism, and raised test scores, through the use of
cultural identity.

Another public school, Shannon County on the Pine Ridge Reservation,
incorporates some cultural curriculum in the classrooms but is also guided
by the state's standard testing and curriculum requirements. The question
is whether cultural fusion into required subjects, culturally aware
teachers in the classrooms and language curriculum at one school could
eventually spread across the state.

"I think so. The state has standards we identified, and public schools are
required to adhere to those standards. We are talking about how much time
we have," Melmer said.

"A problem is that in a school like Mitchell [S.D.], with only 1 percent
Native American [enrollment], there is not a lot of motivation to spend
[money] on the culture. Schools with high Indian populations can do that,"
he said.

To many parents of American Indian students, tribal educators and members
of tribal education boards educating American Indian students is important,
but educating the public and non-Indian students is of equal importance.

Ideally, American Indian educators would like to see an American Indian
teacher standing in front of a classroom full of non-Indian students.

Some states are strapped for money and cannot afford the expense of
curriculum changes and additions or teacher training. Some state
legislatures are reluctant to address the issue, but laws and enforcement
methods are needed to fulfill the goals of a multicultural education, all
educators agreed.

South Dakota is in the beginning stages and is breaking new ground in the
area of partnerships in education.

Melmer said the state's Republican governor, Mike Rounds, "seems to be very
supportive. If he gets re-elected we will have four more years. That will
be five years, and a lot can be done."

There is a lot of work to do; relationships must be established and people
have to buy into the idea that you are trying to do the right thing, Melmer
said.

"We do have access to facts. We can show people -- 'Your graduation rate is
this, your attendance rate is this, your achievement rate is this.' And
then we can say, 'Are you OK with that?' And if the answer is 'We are OK
with it,' we can't do much about it. If the answer is, 'Not OK, we want to
see it better,' we might have a shot. "It's going to be a partnership, not
us telling them what's going to happen," Melmer said.