Infused with state and federal money but facing more requirements and students with challenges, staff at two Native American schools in Maine talked with Education World about meeting their two missions: passing on Native American culture and boosting academics. This article is a part of a continuing Education World series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Included: Educators share insights about teaching a Native American population.
Meeting both missions, though, can also be the biggest challenge for Native American schools. Teachers sometimes battle to fit everything into the day as they juggle federal and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) standards. Social and family problems, as in many communities, affect learning.
"We are still struggling," Lana Shaughnessy, a BIA spokeswoman, said about its 185 schools meeting BIA standards. "We do have some excellent schools. But [schools] are all over the board [in terms of academic achievement]. It's always a challenge working in communities in poverty that are in isolated areas. There are so many factors."
BIA goals for students and schools include the following:
- Teaching children to read independently by the third grade.
- Having children be able to demonstrate knowledge of their culture and language.
- Ensuring that 70 percent of students are proficient or advanced in reading and mathematics.
- Achieving an individual student attendance rate of 90 percent or higher.
- Increasing enrollment, retention, placement, and graduation rates for post-secondary students.
At Indian Island School, student-written stories about robots hang on the walls alongside pictures of Native Americans. Instead of the photos of professional athletes displayed in many public schools to inspire students, Indian Island has Native American prayers and pictures of threatened and endangered species on its walls. Students learn their native language and culture not from an elder but in a classroom not far from a room filled with computers.
Even a fifth-grade science project at Indian Island about the life cycle of the Atlantic salmon will include illustrations of how the native Penobscots hunted the fish, a staple of their diet.
NATIVE STUDIES AS A HOOK
The native studies component often is the hook that pulls children into their schoolwork, particularly in the younger grades. Several students said it is their favorite subject. "I wouldn't like school as much without native studies," Gregory, ten, a fifth grader at Indian Island School told Education World. "I like learning Penobscot. I'm teaching my mom Penobscot." Gregory also is learning to paddle a canoe and play the drum in after-school programs.
The challenge is expanding the students' excitement about native studies to all subjects while fighting the perception that the curriculum is less rigorous than in other public schools.
"A lot of people think of a native school as being all cultural," said Shirley Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at Beatrice Rafferty School and a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe. "It's a way to get the kids here, for them to get an identity. Some parents don't want it [teaching the culture]. But the kids understand it and are receptive to it."
At the same time, "The administration is very concerned with academics, and they do what they can to stress that," Cindy Emerson, an aide in Beatrice Rafferty School's kindergarten class, said.
The BIA has recognized how much excitement the native studies component generates and is working to infuse native culture throughout the curriculum in the BIA schools, Shaughnessy said. "It makes the subject areas more relevant."
The list of requirements keeps growing, however. "Each year, it seems, there are more things to include," Indian Island fourth-grade teacher Susan Eaton said.