Grignon, who teaches about Native crafts and culture at Menominee
High School, stands beside a traditional earth oven he made
with students. (photo by Sarah Carr)
For years, the Menominee Indian School District has posted some
of the worst test scores and graduation rates in Wisconsin. While
the district still struggles, it has been on an upswing, particularly
when it comes to graduation rates.
One likely reason - it now employs more teachers who share the
students culture and history.
Sue Denny worked her way up the ranks at the Menominee Casino,
from waitress to overseeing the Black Jack Department. But 15 years
ago, the HR director could tell Denny wasnt happy and suggested
she apply for a federal grant aimed at training more Native American
The young mother of three took a leap of faith and went back
to school. Today, Denny teaches language arts at Menominee Middle
Like her, nearly all the students are Native Menominee, and
she feels the connections.
"My husband has a very large family. I have a very large
family. One day I was in the lunchroom, and I walked around and
I kind of looked and Im like, Related to him. Related
to her. Related to him," Denny said.
One of Superintendent Wendell Waukau's priorities has been to
recruit more Native teachers. Waukau is the first Menominee to lead
the school system.
"When I first came here we had well-trained teachers who
knew their content but they couldnt develop relationships
with kids. You do want to grow your own, any chance you get,"
To grow its own, the district works with the College of Menominee
Nation to train more teachers. The district directs candidates to
federal grant programs like the one that paid for Dennys schooling
the Indian Education Professional Development Program, and
staff encourages students from a young age to think about education
as a career.
The efforts have made a difference. Since Waukau became superintendent
a decade ago, the percentage of Native teachers has climbed from
about 20 percent to 35 percent.
Perhaps more noteworthy - the graduation rate has soared since
2008, from less than 60 percent to more than 95 percent.
Theres no concrete proof that Native students perform
better with Native teachers, but in a place like Menominee, roots
run deep. For instance, Ben Grignon returned eight years ago.
"It was actually dreams I started having in graduate school.
I had been offered a job in New York City, but I had been dreaming
of being at home," Grignon said.
Grignon now teaches Native culture and crafts, such as beading
and basketry, at the high school. This particular morning, hes
helping two students make moccasins. One student mentions visiting
a relative in prison. Its the kind of exchange likely to happen
with teachers who thoroughly understand life here. They also serve
as living proof of the power of education.
Superintendent Waukau says he values non-Native teachers as
well, who bring an important outsiders perspective. Over the
next couple months, he anticipates hiring a mix of 10 new teachers,
with one crucial understanding.
"In the very beginning, we will say to the teachers: Our
kids are not broke. They dont need to be saved. Build relationships,
learn about the culture, learn how out community operates,"
That can be done by anyone with empathy and an open mind. But
its a little bit easier for those whove walked the walk.
Sarah Carr is editor of the Teacher Project, an education reporting
initiative at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.