READ: How Public Schools Fail Native Students

By Kenrya Rankin Jul 24, 2017

In her new piece for The Nation, “How America is Failing Native American Students,” writer Rebecca Clarren dives into the reasons why Native American children are falling behind academically in public schools.

Clarren writes that punitive discipline has a special way of pushing out these students, and that those who are able to attend class are receiving inadequate instruction:

In public schools across the country, American Indian and Alaska Native students are more likely to be suspended than any other racial group, with the exception of African Americans. According to a 2015 report by the University of California at Los Angeles’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, Native students are disciplined at roughly two times the rate of their White peers. And though they represent approximately 1 percent of the student population, they account for 2 percent of all school arrests and 3 percent of all incidents referred by school staff to law enforcement, according to 2014 data collected by the National Congress of American Indians. Native students also disproportionately attend virtual schools like Bridges [Career and Technical High School at Warm Springs in Oregon], according to an analysis conducted for this article by UCLA. Recent studies show that most students who attend these schools learn less math or reading than their peers in traditional public schools. (More than 90 percent of American Indian students attend public schools, while a majority of the rest attend schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Education, where students have some of the lowest graduation rates and test scores nationwide.)

The high levels of poverty on Native American reservations do create barriers to educational success. But a number of studies have shown that, even when researchers control for poverty, race still determines whether students are more harshly disciplined in the public-school system—and students of all ethnicities who are suspended or expelled are more likely to leave school for good, a phenomenon that researchers refer to as being “pushed out.”

Clarren describes a complaint that the ACLU of Montana filed with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice that alleges that a rural Montana district discriminates against Native students and improperly handles federal funds earmarked for supporting them:

In late June, the ACLU of Montana filed a formal complaint with both the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice alleging that a school district in rural Montana discriminates against students who are citizens of the Assiniboine and Sioux nations. “Native students have been systematically disadvantaged in comparison to their non-Native peers through racially biased enforcement of school discipline policies, inequitable access to school activities, and verbal abuse by teachers and staff,” attorney Melina Healey asserted in a statement announcing the complaint. (Schools receiving public money are required to abide by federal anti-discrimination laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

The ACLU complaint also alleges that the district mismanages the Native-specific federal funding that is allocated by Congress to support Native students and fulfill treaty obligations. Many tribes describe this money as critical for their students. Without it, kids in places like Putnam City, Oklahoma, might go without backpacks, calculators, or caps and gowns at graduation. Districts in other states use the funds to support students by sponsoring Native American clubs, powwows, and Native music or language classes.

The article concludes with examples of what does work to help Native students excel:

Research shows that Native kids are more likely to thrive, to stay out of trouble and stay in school, when they learn about their culture and language. To that end, a small but growing number of states like Washington now encourage or require that Indian Education be taught to all students, at all levels of schooling. To expand such teaching nationwide, this past spring the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian launched Native Knowledge 360, a free online resource of interactive lessons and educational resources that teachers of all grades and subject areas can use.

Kids also need champions and advocates, said Sheldon Spotted Elk, director of Indian Child Welfare at Casey Family Programs. He pointed to the work of Eileen Quintana, a celebrated Title VI administrator in Utah who, through her Ute dancing classes and dedication to students, is credited with raising American Indian graduation rates in her district from 37 percent when she started 20 years ago to 100 percent last year. A bill introduced earlier this year in the US Senate aims to develop more such teachers: It creates incentives, such as loan forgiveness and scholarships, for teachers who work in schools with a large population of Native students.

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