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.

More Native Americans join S.D. Teach for America

Nora Hertel, Associated Press July 7, 2014


PIERRE – Kiva Sam hopes to draw more Native Americans to do what she did — return to the reservation and teach.

The 24-year-old begins her new role this month as a recruiter for the nonprofit Teach for America in hopes of diversifying the South Dakota corps of teachers in the program.

The Oglala Sioux member is considered a legacy corps member because a Teach for America instructor at Little Wound School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation greatly influenced her. Then she signed up after graduating from Dartmouth College.

Teach For America has expanded since it entered the state in 2004. The percentage of native corps members also has gone up. In 2004, the organization had 17 teachers, 5 percent of whom identified themselves as being native. The 2014-2015 crew includes 78 teachers, about 18 percent native.

The organization works in the state to help ease teacher shortages and the achievement gap between white and native students. It initially served the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations and has expanded to include Standing Rock and Lower Brule.

Teach for America staff said it’s important to have Native American teachers on their team. The organization launched the Native Alliance Initiative in 2010 to help recruit more tribal members as teachers and promote culturally responsive teaching.

“I think having native teachers provides that connection to that community and who (students) are as people,” said Robert Cook, an Oglala Sioux member and the senior managing director of the Native Alliance Initiative.

The organization has been criticized, including by state Sen. Jim Bradford, a Pine Ridge Democrat, who argued against state funding for the organization. He said teachers stay for only two years, and the program charges schools one-eighth of their cost to recruit, train and support teachers.

“They’re not a poor organization,” Bradford said.

In 2012 and 2013, the state provided $250,000 matched, dollar for dollar, by private funds. The state did not provide funding this year, so the organization is targeting private contributions.

Sam said she has heard another critique: “Oh, you’re just another group of white people trying to come in and save the Indians.”

But she would like to see Teach for America build up the teacher base on the reservations to the point where there’s no need for the organization at all.

Cook said that goal might be too lofty, considering tribal schools get fewer than one application, on average, for every open teaching position.

The shortage of teachers across the state and the changes presented by the housing shortages and rural location of reservation schools will leave a place for Teach for America, he said.

Additionally, fewer than a third of students on South Dakota reservations are reading at their grade level, compared with more than three-fourths of white students in the state. And native students here have the lowest graduation rates of any demographic in any state, said Jim Curran, executive director of South Dakota’s Teach for America.

In her new position, Sam will meet with college students and work with Native American groups that could help funnel young people into teacher roles.

“You want to recruit more people from this area” she said. “Because after their two years, you hope they’ll stay in the area.”