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Students participate in education conference

Freshman Academy decreases dropout rates

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- At a recent conference on state-run schools, Pine Ridge
High School freshmen Robert Waters and Dusty Michaud offered their opinions
on what could be done better to engage American Indian students. They said
they liked school and their classes, but expressed some criticism and
offered advice.

Education professionals from 16 states converged in Rapid City to discuss
American Indian education at the annual meeting of the Council of Chief
State School Officers. This year's topic was "Strengthening Partnerships
for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Student Education."
The meeting was dedicated to partnering with communities and parents as
well as states and other agencies.

Waters and Michaud attended the conference to provide a student's
perspective on education. Both said they were impressed with the school,
instructors and the process thus far in the school year. They praised the
amount of hands-on learning in the classrooms, whether in English, science
or Lakota language classes. Culture is an integral part in all classes,
they noted, but added they would like to see more.

The two said they had an easy transition from middle school to the upper
grades because of the high school's Freshman Academy and the attention they
received upon entering the school. The academy takes new students through a
three-day orientation that includes breakout sessions and sessions on drug
and alcohol, while its faculty keeps close tabs on the new students to
ensure success.

The Freshman Academy exposes the students over a few weeks to vocational
technology and four-year colleges and universities to help the students
formulate a career path.

Dropout rates among American Indian students -- the highest in the nation
-- are sometimes blamed on socio-economic conditions on reservations such
as Pine Ridge and others in South Dakota and elsewhere. The dropout rate on
Pine Ridge historically has been between 50 and 60 percent. The Freshman
Academy's success has brought that rate down to 17 percent.

More than 90 percent of the American Indian students in the nation attend
public schools, which are run by states and adhere to state rules. In some
schools the majority of the students are American Indian, but testing is
done according to state standards and most districts do not use the
culturally based measurements.

Conference speakers unanimously agreed that "culturally based measurements"
are the most important guidelines to a successful education, as documented
proof has made clear. Many states have laws that require some form of
cultural-based curriculum or activities.

Another positive element in education at Pine Ridge and other tribal and
public schools with large American Indian populations is sports. Waters
said many students go to school just to participate in sports, which keeps
them in school.

Test scores, while on the rise, remain lower than the national average.
Educators are quick to point out that the schools had to come from well
behind the rest of the nation and the state. Why are the scores so low?

Many students who come from rural schools on reservations have difficulty
reading English. Their vocabulary is limited compared with other students,
and their comprehension level is lower. But as was pointed out, some of
these students started their lives speaking their native language, whether
Dine', Hopi or Lakota.

Waters and Michaud said there were not enough teachers, too few classrooms
and not enough information about the culture, even though some classes
incorporated it into the curriculum.

The challenges in education at Pine Ridge and many other large land-based
reservations are many. Half of the students at Pine Ridge High School are
bused. Dormitories that usually house students who travel great distances
are closed. Many of the students have to travel two hours one way: they
wake up at 5 a.m. and get on a bus at 6 a.m. in order to get to school at 8
a.m. If they participate in sports they may not return home until 8:30
p.m., leaving little time for homework.

In addition to dormitories, Waters and Michaud said the school also needs a
drug and alcohol treatment center.

A major setback, they noted, is the presence of gangs, drugs and alcohol.
Waters said the majority of students at Pine Ridge use alcohol. He didn't
elaborate as to how much or how often.

"Many of the kids don't want to be warriors and look out for the people.
Many are about themselves," Waters said. "They are not culturally active."

The two also pointed out that parents, guardians or others responsible for
some youth were not education-oriented; some were intoxicated quite a bit
of the time, didn't help their children after school or get them ready for
school and mentally prepared, leading to a higher dropout rate.

"If the parents drink, the kids will too," Michaud said.

Poverty in Indian country, several group session facilitators pointed out,
is a major deterrent to parental involvement. Many parents can't afford to
support their children in school, and may carry bad memories of school
themselves.

Workshops at the gathering pointed out some inadequacies of public and BIA
education, including a lack of cultural competence and positive role
models.

Culture and language are basic improvements in curriculum and school
community that are needed to ensure a better outcome for students, many
participants said.

Conference participants discussed some strategies to engage American Indian
students including hosting talking circles rather than assemblies and
increased parental involvement.

Public high school curricula reform suggestions

A national organization called the Council of Chief State School Officers
held its annual meeting in Rapid City recently. In break-out workshops,
attendees came up with suggestions on how to reform public high schools,
add curriculum and strategies for engaging students, and how to implement
the goals.

WHAT ARE THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES SPECIFIC TO SUPPORTING NATIVE YOUTH?

* School staff doesn't understand life and community on the reservation and
doesn't have a connection to Native youth outside of the classroom

* Social problems in Native communities, i.e., substance abuse and dropout
rates

* Clash between tribal councils and the BIA; BIA employees don't listen to
others; competing funding sources and expectations

* Understanding that "pan-Indian" knowledge is not only wrong, it
marginalizes and serves to negate efforts to create personalized learning
environments, and perpetuates racism and stereotypes

* A need to understand what racism is -- what it looks like in the
classroom and in the curriculum

* Lack of role models for youth; lack of parenting

* Education sometimes a negative experience for parents

* Overcrowded schools

* Native language issues

* Social disenfranchisement

* Lack of coordination among across states

HOW MIGHT A PERSONALIZED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT LOOK FOR STUDENTS?

* Actively involved students

* Community responds to what children are doing

* Tribal education code

* Leadership, self-development of students

* Infusion of American Indian clubs

* Culturally sensitive teachers

WHAT STRATEGIES ARE WORKING TO ACADEMICALLY ENGAGE NATIVE STUDENTS?

* Transforming school rituals to make them culturally accessible, i.e.
talking circles instead of assemblies

* Allow songs that are self-initiated by high school students, including
pow wow songs

* Career ladders

* Statewide lists of approved books on Native issues and culture

* Bilingual programs

* Making subjects relevant

* Parental understanding of their involvement

WHAT TYPES OF SUPPORT ARE NEEDED?

* Tribal community

* Tutoring

* Social comfort; belonging to a school community

* Open dialogue; build relationships that lead to trust, action

WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW TO ENGAGE NATIVE YOUTH AND COMMUNITIES IN
EDUCATION?

* Native history and cultural background

* Empowering students to make positive decisions

* Engage youth in activities and cultural heritage to find alternatives to
drugs

* Encourage elders to teach the youth

* Encourage more positive parent support