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Helping American Indians on path to success

Posted on May 4, 2011
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Educators reach out in effort to improve college readiness in Wisconsin

Statistically speaking, Jacqueline Schram is an anomaly.

Despite a humble background growing up in an Ojibwe family in Canada, she’s taken her high school education, gone on to earn three college degrees and is on her way to a fourth.

In addition to working in public affairs at Marquette University, Schram, 45, is trying to build bridges so that more students from indigenous cultures travel the same kind of path.

“When you look at the number of college-ready Indian kids, the numbers are shockingly low,” says Schram, one of the first children from her First Nations band in Manitoba to attend graduate school.

Nationwide, students who identify as American Indian/Alaskan/Hawaiian natives are less likely than any other racial subgroup to graduate from high school, pursue college or be on track for a postgraduate career, said Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the U.S. Department of Education.

In Wisconsin, a state with significant numbers of students from native cultures, the issue has received renewed attention from Jennings and others in the U.S. Education Department. Officials stopped in Green Bay last week as part of a nationwide tour to meet with tribal leaders and other stakeholders in the Indian community.

The visit comes on the heels of a recent announcement that Menominee Indian High School, a rural school serving primarily American Indian students near Shawano, is among the 5% lowest-performing schools in the state, based on a specific formula.

“This is really an invisible population to a lot of people in Wisconsin,” Jennings said. “There’s an enormous achievement gap. We need to look at what we are doing wrong, and how we can change the law to fix that.”

The law Jennings is referring to is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind, which is up for reauthorization. More than a funding increase, Jennings said, stakeholders want a voice.

“Of course people need more money, but that isn’t primarily what we’ve been hearing,” Jennings said. “What they want is a say in what their children are learning and how they’re being treated. The U.S. made treaties with the Indians that said, ‘We’ll use your land, and we promise to provide you with quality health care and education in return.’

“To be blunt, that promise has not been kept in the past,” Jennings said.

Providing specific kinds of support to students from native cultures is important, advocates say, because more than half of American Indians do not live on reservations, and more than 90% in the United States attend regular public schools, not tribal schools.

Schram said other factors contribute to low achievement. For example, aboriginal people in Canada and American Indians in the U.S. have communal cultures and styles of learning, while white European and American styles of teaching can be individualized and competitive.

At the rural Menominee Indian School District, Superintendent Wendell Waukau oversees almost 900 students, almost all of whom are low-income American Indians.

They have ample opportunities to learn about their culture and history, which native students might not get at a school where only a handful of other students come from similar backgrounds.

Waukau acknowledged his high schoolers struggle when it comes to reading and math on state tests but noted signs of progress. While only 58% of children graduated from high school in 2004-’05, 83.5% graduated last year, he said.

He added that the high school will apply for the federal school improvement grant funds – worth up to $2.3 million over the next three years, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

In Wisconsin, state Department of Public Instruction statistics show an enrollment of 11,607 American Indian students in kindergarten through 12th grade this school year. That represents 1.3% of the state’s entire K-12 enrollment, according to the DPI.

Milwaukee Public Schools’ latest data shows 647 Native American students in the district, less than 1% of the district’s total enrollment of 81,372, according to a spokeswoman.

Schram, who just started a doctoral program at Marquette, hopes to research the history of education of people from native cultures.

She said it’s important to look past the small sample size of such students and make a greater effort to support them.

“To really open the doors for Indian students at an organization like Marquette, there needs to be a place and voice for those students,” she said. “We have to have a front line of support for them, a comfort away from home.”

30 April 2011

Erin Richards

http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/121035859.html

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