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Type 2 diabetes links tribal colleges with K-12 schools

LAS VEGAS – As rates of Type 2 diabetes continue to mushroom among American Indian/Alaska Native populations in the last decade, so has the availability of education and prevention programs and resources.

According to studies, the number of AI/ANs under age 35 diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes doubled from 1994-2004, and continues to grow at an alarming rate. It’s statistics like these that motivate Native educators like Carolee Dodge-Francis, assistant professor in the School of Community Health Sciences and executive director of the American Indian Education and Research Center at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, to spearhead the creation of the Diabetes Education in Tribal Schools, K-12, “Health is Life in Balance” curriculum in 2001.

Dodge-Francis, an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, tapped her 25 years of experience in tribal urban and rural health to lead the way in the development of the diabetes educational-prevention curriculum. But she had the support and creative input from representatives of eight tribal colleges and universities from across the nation.

The Diabetes Mellitus Interagency Coordinating Committee, chaired by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program, both played a vital role in curriculum development.

What amazed Dodge-Francis in her research over the years is how “diabetes” has become a household name, common knowledge among Native youth. Nowadays, all children have to do is turn on the TV, and they will eventually see a commercial from one of countless companies pitching their glucose meters and diabetes supplies, she said.

While she feels it’s a positive sign that children recognize the disease by its name, the DETS curriculum provides the educational and prevention tools to keep that recognition from turning into an affliction later in life. Before a teacher can delve into the program, he or she must engage in teacher development training, facilitated by a representative of one of the tribal colleges or universities.

The curriculum covers the ABCs of diabetes and how students can maintain a balance in their diet, exercise and traditional way of life. It also highlights what science and research has revealed about the disease’s effect on Native communities. Another component is geared at generating students’ interest in health and science professions.

“Since we don’t see a large trend of our students going into sciences or health care professions, we want to encourage them to go in those directions,” Dodge-Francis said.

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One study revealed that the curriculum has already motivated some students to decide on a career in a health care or science profession.

When the curriculum was being developed earlier this decade, Lemyra DeBruyn, coordinator of the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program, said her group was busy developing the Eagle Book series for K-4 students. The illustrated stories feature the lessons an eagle, a Native boy and his group of friends learn about diabetes and its effect on their community.

“It was one of those magical, amazing times when two projects came together that also fit together beautifully,” DeBruyn said.

Dodge-Francis said the curriculum has been tested and even proven effective in schools with low Native student populations, and has served as a wake up call for adults needing a reminder on the effects of the disease on the body. “The mantra, health, life and balance, not only fits across all populations, but all ages, from students to teachers.”

Dodge-Francis explained that the curriculum was created with adaptability in mind. She witnessed that adaptability first-hand, as the trainer at the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ahfachkee Indian School. For the last two years, she’s monitored how the curriculum has positively affected both the school and community. “It has been an amazing journey to learn from that school on how they utilize the curriculum.”

Alaska Native tribal schools have compared and contrasted it with tradition and culture. The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians teach it during their after school program. And the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, among other youth organizations, have also integrated it into some of their after school and summer programs.

Meanwhile, funding for the program, a grant from the NIH, ends August 2011. Dodge-Francis said chances are slim in securing another grant, but said her partners from the tribal colleges and universities will continue to provide teacher development training to schools with Native populations.

For more information on the curriculum visit