White House Conference Offers Improvements to Native Education

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Native American students have largely been in underperforming schools for decades. Their school system is heavily bureaucratic with several federal agencies sharing responsibility for various elements of their education. Lauren Camera, writing for US News and World Report, says indigenous children are the weakest academic performers and have the lowest graduation rates of any student subgroup.

Last year, the national average graduation rate was 80%, while American Indian students’ average was just 67%. Also many of their facilities are just as neglected as academics, with some buildings even missing essential necessities like running water and heat.

After a visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, President Obama assigned his cabinet secretaries the task of improving the situation.

One of the changes has been a partnership including the Department of the Interior, Department of Education, Department of Justice, and Department of Housing in and Urban Development.

Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell said last week at a tribal nations conference that all cabinet agencies must be held accountable. A tremendous task has been coordinating resources and reorganizing the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), which is currently a part of the Department of the Interior, and which supervises 183 schools on reservations in 24 states that together are educating 48,000 students.

John King, soon to take over as Secretary of Education, said there has been a painful past and a failure by the country to take care of its Native young people. King is in support of the BIE effort to give control of schools on reservations to the tribes so that instructors can preserve indigenous languages and children will receive culturally valid instruction.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minnesota) visited some of the tribal schools in his state and witnessed the run down conditions. He called the problems a “bureaucratic mess.”

Not everyone in the Native American communities is satisfied with the president’s efforts, however. Funding has increased, but Native groups say the results are mixed. One problem they have highlighted is the distribution of money, which has been uneven. On the Leech Lake Reservation, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School built in 1984 doesn’t need repair, it needs replacing, according to Tristan Ahtone of Al-jazeera America.

Last year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs used $830 million for Native American education to support 185 schools, while Ohio’s Cleveland Metropolitan School District has a budget of $1.5 billion to fund 96 district schools.

“It’s a disgrace that we are being left behind when we have new schools all over the United States being built and our children have to come to school in a building like this,” Shirley Young of the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school board said.

She added that she wanted the administration to up the ante so her board can start construction on a new school building.

The US Departments of Education and the Interior are allotting $2.5 million in grant awards to better prepare Native American students for college. The Department of Education’s State-Tribal Education Partnership (STEP) program and the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education’s Tribal Education Department (TED) program funded the grants at the White House Tribal Nations Conference.

The STEP program money amounting to $1,766,232 will go to five Native American communities in Idaho, Montana, and Oklahoma to assist Native schools in joining with states and local school districts to create culturally appropriate strategies, teaching materials, and the sharing of data to improve school attendance, raise graduation rates, and reduce the number of dropouts.

The TED program will give $700,000 to four tribal nations to build their education departments.