The Hand-off of a Lifetime for Native American Students

This is the first post from our newest team member, Senior Advisor Allison Crean Davis.

Inasmuch as an hour and a half can sufficiently examine an issue that exemplifies “a long history of broken promises” (per Chairman John Kline), last Thursday’s Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on Native American schools provided a public mea culpa from a government that has consistently failed to provide quality education for Native American students. While the hearing, entitled “Examining the Federal Government’s Mismanagement of Native American Schools,” allowed us a peek into the challenges at hand and emphasized hope moving forward, nagging questions remain.

First, let’s talk about what was clear. There were an abundance of grim words used to describe the longstanding status of Indian education: “bungling bureaucracy,” “bleakest outcomes,” and “individual and national economic tragedy.” As cited during the hearing, approximately 93% of Native children attend traditional public schools and 7% attend schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), part of the Department of Interior. Within the public schools, only 69% of Native American children graduate high school. For those in BIE schools, the number is barely 50%. There is a long list of BIE school facility issues documented over a decade ago and still being addressed, which includes heating problems, gas leaks, buckling floors, and popping circuit breakers. There are also the problems of mobility: students and families move frequently, there have been 33 BIE Directors in the past 36 years, and a heap of restructuring attempts has left educators in the system chasing moving targets.

The jury’s out on what’s required to provide adequate financial support for schools serving Native American students both on reservations and in our towns. At first blush, BIE schools have the highest per-student spending in the country at over $20,000 per year. That’s nearly double the national average. Then how is it possible that there are crumbling walls in these schools? As BIE Director Charles Roessel suggested, some of these schools are so remote they have to allocate their own resources to areas typically covered by city and town infrastructure, such as water and fire safety. We also know that funding formulas for rural education may not sufficiently address these additional and necessary supports.

It is indisputable that change is needed. Generations of Native American students have failed to thrive academically within the public school and BIE systems. The consensus during last week’s hearing was that this change needs to address a fundamental yet long neglected concern: the need to better integrate the rich history, languages, and cultures of Native American students into the educational content and process to bolster a stronger sense of identity. How to do so? Transfer control for the education of these children to their tribes.

Since the late 1980’s, the tribal equivalent of charter schools, called “grant” schools, has existed on reservations, and tribal education offices have helped run their schools. This has not been a panacea by any stretch. Many of these schools perform no better, and sometimes worse, than BIE-run schools. But well-funded and innovative tribes, such as the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, have found ways to make inroads, both culturally and academically, with their students.

Now, based on extensive consultations with tribes by the Department of Education and the Department of Interior, there are financial incentives for more and more schools to “go grant” and be run by tribal education offices. The idea is that the best solutions come from those who know the students best. Hence the BIE is restructuring again, eliminating many field offices, gradually turning over control of schools to the tribes, and rebranding itself as their go-to resource for running their schools. The federal government is reaching out to tribal nations and has launched Generation Indigenous (“Gen-I”), a collective impact approach to supporting native youth and removing traditional barriers to their success.

This is more than a movement toward the tribes, and more than bringing them in to the conversation. It’s a metaphorical passing of the baton from the BIE that will require tribal members to move from the stands to the track and run with the education of their children. There may be something to this. Perhaps, in the hands of tribes, there will be greater delineation of the formerly hazy line between traditional curriculum and the local language and culture in schools. Tribal traditions may be more elegantly integrated into the practices, attitudes, and teachings of the school. Done well, this may fortify instruction and engage students, re-instilling pride, purpose, and a sense of direction. Education, it was said during the hearing, is “nation building.”

But now for the nagging questions related to this exchange of responsibility. Do all tribes actually want the task of running a school? And if so, do they have the experience and skill sets to do so? If tribal members need additional capacity for this responsibility, is the new BIE structure, aimed to support them, the best resource? In spite of ample consultation in developing this strategy, not all tribes agree, with some showing “robust and unified resistance.”

This begs these questions: Were prior restructuring efforts ever really a barrier to integrating local tribal languages and cultures? Or were they a failure of imagination? And if integrating tribal voices is part of the solution, is a relatively swift shifting of control with unproven support the answer?

In a footrace, the baton hand-off, or exchange, is highly technical and practiced often. It is a deceptively difficult reflection of teamwork. A smooth hand-off relies on placement, timing, technique, communication, and trust. An ungraceful hand-off can disrupt the flow or worse: it can cause the baton to be dropped. Neither kind of miscalculation can or should be tolerated by another generation of Native American children.

The educational exchange at hand, from BIE to the tribes, represents risk and opportunity, a combination [meriting and perhaps] requiring intense attention. With high stakes of children’s futures and the sustainability of their tribal nations, we are left with a final nagging question: Who is coaching this hand-off?

2 thoughts on “The Hand-off of a Lifetime for Native American Students

  1. Heather Harding

    I love that you have chosen to lift this issue up. TFA’s Native Alliance Initiative brought this issue to a whole new audience. Those of us concerned with equity should be focused on this hand-off and the question of building capacity within tribal councils to do the work. As a trustee for an aspiring language immersion charter school for the Wampanoag tribe in Mashpee, MA, I see first hand that tribes have capacity, knowledge, expertise and the determination to do the work. We need to direct resources to their efforts and support policies that enable the will of the people.

    1. Allison

      Thank you for your comment and I look forward to hearing how your efforts with the charter school go. What a beautiful area that is! We’re committed to continuing the dialogue about this handoff and other issues related to Native American education here at Bellwether.

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