It Takes a Native Community: Educators reform schools in an era of standards

May 15th, 2006 | By | Category: 17-4: Reforming Our Schools, Native Style, Features
By Paul Boyer, Ph.D.

Julie Cajune is often reminded what it’s like to be an idealistic new teacher. As director of American Indian education for the Ronan Public Schools, located within the Flathead Reservation of Montana, she sees student teachers enter the classroom for the first time determined, as she was, to “create justice.” Each teacher hopes his or her classroom will be a sanctuary where children are protected from low expectations, broken families, and defeatist attitudes.

Cajune still pursues justice. She is a leader in Indian education statewide and 2002 recipient of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. But after years of classroom experience, she now appreciates how complex the task of education reform really is. To serve students, good teachers are essential, but – alas — good teachers are not enough.

The problems many Indian children experience in school — low academic achievement, absenteeism, high drop-out rates — cannot be solved by any one individual. Instead, it requires action by the entire school system and, especially, greater leadership by Indians themselves. Tribes must become partners in the process of school reform and become more involved in the work of their schools.

“Individual teachers can do phenomenal things, but nothing [in education] is going to change systemically… until power is shared,” says Cajune. “There are some teachers who are willing to involve parents and do the right thing and go the extra mile. They can make a difference in their classroom. But you won’t change the whole school environment until that power is shared.”

Challenging the Standards

Most Indian educators would agree. They reject the long-held belief that low academic achievement is always the fault of Indian children. They resent the arrogance and racism that still exists is some schools. They also know that small changes to the curriculum don’t get to the root of the problem.

But what, exactly, should be done? What does it mean to pursue “systemic” reform? How do we start, and how do we know we are succeeding? At the most pragmatic level, how do we gain the support of non-Indian educators and — no less troublesome — how do we overcome indifference and division within our own communities?

There is no one formula for successful reform of Indian education, but we can now start answering some of these questions with a small measure of confidence thanks to the work of educators participating in the National Science Foundation’s decade-old Rural Systemic Initiative. Focusing on regions of “persistent rural poverty,” the NSF supported a diverse range of programs working to promote fundamental change in how math and science education is taught in some of the country’s poorest, most isolated schools.

Funding went to projects from Appalachia to Hawaii and, significantly, included three Indian and Native initiatives. One was located in the Four Corners region; another served 12 tribal college communities in the Northern Plains and the Wind River Reservation of Wyoming; the third encompassed Native Alaska communities. A total of 19 tribal colleges received small planning grants. Funding to the oldest sites began in the early 1990s; most have ended, although a great deal of the work continues through local funding and informal effort.

Most education reform strategies offer Native communities a prepackaged, one-size-fits-all solution: a new curriculum, a new approach to classroom management, or expensive new computer technology. In contrast, the Rural Systemic Initiative encouraged communities to craft their own approaches to school reform, responding to local needs and taking advantage of local resources.

Despite their different approaches to reform, all shared a common definition of success: Rural Systemic Initiative leaders believed a quality education must reflect the values of tribal peoples and must ultimately serve to strengthen whole tribal communities.

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