How America Is Failing Native American Students

How America Is Failing Native American Students

How America Is Failing Native American Students

Punitive discipline, inadequate curriculum, and declining federal funding created an education crisis.


Inside a double-wide trailer on the Warm Springs reservation in central Oregon, nearly two dozen American Indian high-school students sit facing computers, teaching themselves math and history. Rain slaps the roof. Ear buds dangle from one girl’s left ear. Two more students whisper, sharing a joke. Still another student, his face set in a serious expression, stares at the screen before him. The one teacher in the room previously taught third grade; he’s certified to teach high-school continuing education and agricultural science. Nearly all of the young people who study in this trailer—officially called the Bridges Career and Technical High School at Warm Springs—are Native Americans. Bridges is a public school, created as an alternative for teens who aren’t on track to graduate, or who have been repeatedly suspended or expelled from the large, diverse high school in the town of Madras—“up there,” as the residents of the reservation call it.

Here in the Jefferson County 509J School District, more than a third of all American Indian students in sixth through 12th grades were suspended at least once during the 2015–16 school year, making them more than twice as likely to be suspended from school as their white peers. Native Americans make up one-third of the district’s student population but receive nearly two-thirds of the expulsions. They are the kids that the district has “thrown away,” said Dawn Smith, a former elementary-school teacher and administrator who worked for the district for nearly 30 years.

Savannah Holliday, a poised 18-year-old who lives on the Warm Springs reservation, was expelled in each year of middle school, once after fighting with another student who, Holliday said, called her a racial slur. After she was kicked out, Holliday’s only option was to attend virtual classes like those offered in the trailer at Warm Springs. The computer-taught lessons weren’t very engaging, Holliday said, and she still doesn’t understand many basic math concepts. “I missed out on a lot of learning opportunities. You were kind of on your own—they’d have people watching you, but sometimes, if we asked for help, they couldn’t help.” Many of her classmates who were suspended or expelled eventually dropped out of school altogether. When I asked Holliday if she could introduce me to some of them, she texted back: “Most of them are pregnant, parents, addicted to drugs, moved away or dead…so would be hard for me to contact them.”

Last year, less than two-thirds of the tribal members who were enrolled as seniors in the 509J School District graduated. Warm Springs Tribal Councilwoman Carina Miller, who graduated from the district in 2005, is concerned that Native students aren’t receiving an equal education. The administrators “don’t see us as people deserving the same sort of education and opportunities,” she said. Miller was suspended several times herself, once for swearing; a white student once called her a “prairie nigger.” As a student, she added, “I felt worthless—like I wasn’t worth the effort or patience to understand who I am and my history. This school district has failed us my entire lifetime, and it continues to do this today.”

Warm Springs is not an outlier in this. Across the country, American Indian and Alaska Native students are disciplined more than most other racial groups, and they have a dropout rate twice the national average, resulting in what academic experts call a nationwide “crisis” for Native students. Many tribal leaders and education experts say these dismal statistics reflect, at worst, overt discrimination—and, at best, the alienation that Native students feel in a school system that has few Native teachers overall as well as limited lessons on Native American history and culture. For decades, the US Congress has allocated money to enhance the learning opportunities for Native students, who are among the poorest in the nation. But that amount is steadily declining on a per-pupil basis, and there is little oversight of how the money is actually used.

When the United States signed its treaties with the Indian tribes, stripping them of their land, it promised to provide public services—including education—to tribal members in perpetuity. “For too long, the federal leadership has failed to honor that sacred pledge, leaving generations of Native children behind,” said Washington State Senator John McCoy, a citizen of the Tulalip tribe and a national leader in Native education reform. “Institutionalized assimilation and racism remain embedded within our public schools.”

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, 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.”

Frequent suspensions or expulsions can also lead to gaps in learning, a cycle reflected in the poor math and reading scores of Native students on a national level. Native students are less likely to graduate in four years than any other racial group; by the time they reach their senior year, only 10 percent are proficient in math, according to the results compiled for the year 2015 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (Less than 5 percent of Native 11th graders in Oregon’s 509J School District met math-proficiency levels in 2016.)

Harsh discipline and low graduation rates can limit the economic and social opportunities for students beyond their teenage years. Low graduation rates contribute to high unemployment on reservations, as well as diminished levels of home ownership. Though Native Americans are regularly omitted from national studies, in large part due to their small population size, studies of other minority groups have found that being expelled or dropping out of school is also associated with higher incarceration rates. Plus the suicide rate among Native teens is one and a half times higher than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control; it’s likely that negative experiences in school, including expulsion or suspension, are associated with this epidemic, said Dr. R. Dale Walker, the director of Oregon Health and Science University’s Center for American Indian Health Education and Research.

“Why the heck aren’t we doing better, and why has it taken so long? I just go, ‘Ugh!’” said Rick Molitor, the superintendent of the 509J School District for the past nine years. (He retired on July 1.) Molitor adds that the high disciplinary rates stem, in large part, from a lack of cultural understanding among teachers. In the past two years, he’s been working with the Warm Springs tribe to increase cultural programming in the schools, and he credits new facilities and programs like Bridges with helping to increase the graduation rate. Even so, “we have a long ways to go,” he acknowledged. “I’ve been going out to Warm Springs and saying, ‘We’re failing our Native American kids.’ There’s no way we can come forward and say we’re being successful.”

In late June, the ACLU of Montana supported 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 Montana 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.

Despite their importance, these federal funding programs are loosely managed. The Johnson O’Malley program, created in 1934 to fund basic educational needs of Native students, disperses money based on the number of enrolled tribal members attending public school. Congress hasn’t completed the necessary population survey since 1994, while the number of Native students has grown by approximately 4 percent per year—meaning that the same pool of money authorized in 1994 must now cover far more children. In 1995, the federal government allocated $125 per student; last year, the allotment was just $63.80. President Trump’s proposed budget would cut program spending even further, by 30 percent. Over a year ago, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota introduced a bill that would update the survey; it hasn’t gotten out of committee.

The other major source of federal money specifically earmarked for Native students are Title VI grants, which school districts use to enhance the educational experience of Native kids through things like music or language classes. The US Department of Education conducts only cursory audits of the program, and it fails to ensure that the money is targeted specifically to Native students, rather than the student body at large.

Tribal members in other areas share the Assiniboine and Sioux nations’ concern about mismanagement of this funding, which amounts to more than $100 million each year nationally. Attempts to learn how Oregon’s 509J School District and others use the funds revealed a lack of transparency and oversight. “Many tribes are regularly concerned about how exactly districts are spending the money intended to help our children,” said Quinton Roman Nose, executive director of the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly, via e-mail. “Often when we ask for specific details on where the money goes, we get a broad budget that doesn’t provide answers to questions being asked by tribes and parents. Ultimately, there’s the golden rule: He who has the gold rules. And the schools are the grantees; they’ve got the money, and they can do with it whatever they want.”

The roots of the current crisis in American Indian education were planted 138 years ago, when the great-great-great-grandparents of today’s students were children. Seen as an enlightened alternative to genocide, the federal government and a network of churches created hundreds of Indian boarding schools intended to assimilate Native Americans and eradicate their culture. If Native parents didn’t send their children away to these schools, agents of the Department of the Interior were authorized to arrest them or withhold food (provided in exchange for land), which for most families meant starvation.

“Education affords the true solution to the Indian problem…only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated,” Indian School Superintendent John B. Riley declared in 1886. In these boarding schools, which persisted into the 1970s, Native children weren’t allowed to speak their own language, practice their culture, or see their family on a regular basis. Some students were physically or sexually abused by their teachers or dormitory supervisors. Many returned to their families and tribal communities deeply scarred. Dr. Susan Faircloth, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, Wil-
mington, and a member of the Coharie tribe, pointed out that this history “make[s] it difficult, if not impossible, for many American Indian families and their children to fully engage with schools and educators.”

Today, there are no Native classroom teachers or administrators at Madras High School, the large public school serving the Warm Springs reservation. “The reason why behaviors are so bad here in this district is that teachers aren’t culturally aware,” said Ellise David, a senior at the school, which has a student body that is one-third Native American, one-third Hispanic, and one-third white. David, a member of the school board and the Indian Education Committee for the tribe, added that many teachers don’t understand the challenges that Native students and their families face—for example, getting to a teacher conference on time if they don’t have a car. “I hate teachers who are more like, ‘I’m only here to teach—I’m not here to know your family,’” David said. “Being aware of what the students go through—not just Native students, but Hispanics too—will help the teachers manage their classrooms.”

Most of the parents, teachers, and students in Warm Springs whom I interviewed for this story were afraid that if they were quoted, the district would somehow punish them. One teacher that I interviewed on background was placed on administrative leave, ostensibly out of concern that she had shared confidential information about students during our conversation, according to an investigator that the district hired, who contacted me. (She hadn’t.)

Again, the lack of Native teachers and administrators isn’t unique to Madras. Less than 1 percent of educators nationwide are American Indian or Alaska Native. This is a real problem, because having teachers of one’s own race can be a key to educational success: A recent study of 100,000 black students found that if they had at least one African-American teacher between third and fifth grade, their chances of dropping out declined by 29 percent. Though the Office of Indian Education has a grant program intended to create more Native teachers and administrators, the program is mismanaged, according to a 2010 audit by the Department of Education inspector general’s office—leading to waste, fraud, and abuse, as well as a failure to fund projects that conduct significant training. (The OIE declined to answer whether it had made any reforms since the audit.)

This dearth of Native teachers is mirrored by the lack of lessons about Native Americans taught to public-school students across the country. Eighty-seven percent of the references to American Indians in the various state academic standards, upon which textbooks are based, concern events that happened before 1900, according to one 2015 study; only Arizona, Washington, Oklahoma, and Kansas teach about the boarding schools. Though the situation is better than it was 50 years ago, Native American content in school textbooks still perpetuates cultural stereotypes, while few textbooks convey the tribal perspectives on historical events and cultural concerns, according to a 2012 survey. (For example, some Nebraska textbooks have described American Indians as lazy and drunk.)

“For more than a century, we’ve made Natives understand the non-Native culture and adjust accordingly, and it does not work. It’s not reciprocal—it’s assimilation,” said Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association. “Native students are often only shown small and very specific reflections of themselves in school—usually lesson plans around the ‘Thanksgiving story,’ or ‘Indian pride’ in the context of a school mascot. These reflections are so wrong, so totally off base, that our students disengage from learning.”

For both Native and non-Native teachers who want to help their Native students thrive, there is a paucity of available research to guide their efforts. Because of their relatively small numbers in the overall population, Native students often don’t get studied. Indian educational leaders refer to themselves as the “Asterisk Nation”: “an asterisk, instead of [a] data point, is often used in data displays,” reports the National Congress of American Indians.

Without reliable data and research, government agencies at every level don’t know how to fix problems or allocate funds. This lack of understanding filters down to the classrooms of local schools, where teachers and administrators are often ignorant about their Native students. For example, Warm Springs and other tribes hold funeral ceremonies that last for several weeks; some school districts expel students who miss so many classes. According to a 2013 Office for Civil Rights complaint made by California’s Wiyot tribe against the local school district for a range of mistreatment, teachers regularly touched their Native students’ long hair, which is culturally offensive.

Last winter, I watched Laura Lynn, an educational trainer and professor at the University of Washington’s new Native Education Certificate program, teach a fifth-grade lesson on colonization. She studied a crayon drawing made by a student who’d been asked to depict a place that was sacred to her. “I like this part of the beach you made,” Lynn said, ripping off a corner of the paper. The class grew silent. She continued to tear the paper. “I think I’ll keep it.”

Lynn’s students were actually middle- and high-school teachers attending a series of statewide training sessions mandated by a state law—long on the books but only fully funded last year—that requires school districts to teach the history, government, and culture of their local tribes, using curriculums created and vetted by tribal people. “To come out of high school and not learn about the colonization of Native people is not right.”

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.

In 2016, the Obama administration signed a law that for the first time requires school districts to engage in “timely and meaningful consultation [with tribes] on issues affecting American Indian and Alaska Native students” or risk losing federal aid. Such partnerships may help to keep Native kids in school and supported. For example, the Chickasaw Nation, based in Oklahoma, now receives notification from the school district when students are truant, triggering a tribally led process to contact families and provide wraparound services for the students to keep them in school.

So far, the Trump administration hasn’t shown interest in improving the circumstances for Native students. Instead, the budget proposed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would eliminate more than $4 billion from the programs that support Native kids. DeVos advocates a voucher system, which would provide students with public money to attend private schools. But to use these vouchers, most tribal students would have to travel more than 70 miles round-trip to get to and from school. DeVos also promotes virtual schools like the trailer in Warm Springs, where students learn primarily from computer programs.

Back on the Warm Springs reservation, the incoming superintendent of the 509J School District, Ken Parshall, told me that he is “passionate about making brighter outcomes for my students.” A pilot program launched this past year helps the current support staff earn a teaching license; one Native teacher from that program is now applying for a job with the district.

Failure doesn’t have to be a destiny for Native American students. Savannah Holliday, the student who was expelled in every year of middle school, went on to receive a full scholarship to Southern Oregon University, where she plans to study forensic pathology. She credited her success to her mother and her participation in a traditional-dancing group.

When we met, Holliday was wearing her traditional dress, bedecked with purple and blue beads and shells. “In order to be successful, you need to know who you are,” she said. “The dances help me identify who I am and where I come from. Everything at Madras High School is not of my culture, but at dance practice I fit in, and I feel less alone.”

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