In One Tribal District, Native Teachers May Be Key to Improvement

By Jackie Mader, Education Week

A tribal school district in Wisconsin has increased the percentage of Native American teachers in its schools and has found that the strategy may be linked to improving academic performance, according to a story by WUWM Public Radio.

The Menominee Indian school district in the eastern part of the state has worked with the College of Menominee Nation to “grow its own” teachers, which has resulted in an increase of Native teachers from about 20 percent to 35 percent over the past decade. Since 2008, the graduation rate in the district has jumped from 60 percent to more than 95 percent. Part of the reason, according to the story, may be that students have more examples of tribal members who have succeeded due to an education.

Superintendent Wendell Waukau told WUWM that it’s important to have teachers who understand where students come from, which also means it is important to educate non-Native teachers. “In the very beginning, we will say to the teachers: Our kids are not broke. They don’t need to be saved. Build relationships, learn about the culture, learn how out community operates,” Waukau said.

2011 report in the Journal of Indigenous Research found that with few postsecondary programs graduating consistent numbers of American Indian teachers, “many reservation schools continue to hire temporary and sometimes poorly-prepared teachers to fill in the gaps.” Native teachers have been historically underrepresented in teacher education schools, and account for less than one percent of the teachers enrolled in teacher preparation programs, even though about 1.3 percent of students in K-12 identify as Native students. During the 2011-12 school year, less than one percent of teachers nationwide identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, a percentage has remained consistent over the past decade.

Nationwide, many universities have ramped up efforts to recruit and train more Native teachers, some with the help of federal grants. Last year, Oregon’s Portland State University received $1.2 million in federal money to recruit American Indian students to its teacher-preparation program. The University of Wisconsin-Superior and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College established a Native American teacher program in 2012, and Teach For America has also launched an initiative to recruit more Native teachers, especially in states like South Dakota with high populations of Native students.