Canku Ota Logo
Canku Ota
Canku Ota Logo
(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
pictograph divider
Prairie Island Graduation Rate Stunning
by Brett Boese - Rochester, MN Post-Bulletin -
St. Coud State University American Indian Center Director Jim Knutson-Kolodzne attends Native American cultural training for Minnesota teachers Thursday. The event was hosted by the Prairie Island Indian Community. (photo by Elizabeth Nida Obert - Post Bulletin)

RED WING — Dozens of educators from across the state descended on Prairie Island Indian Community last week for a five-day seminar focused on improving graduation rates and raising cultural awareness to better support Native American students, who continue to struggle with a significant achievement gap in Minnesota and across the country.

The proximity to Red Wing created a dynamic in which locals attendees were viewed as unsuspecting experts, thanks to some surprising statistics.

In 2011, Minnesota had the lowest Native American graduation rate in the country at 42 percent. The national average has consistently hovered in the mid-60s, which prompted President Barack Obama to declare last summer that Indian education had reached "crisis" stage while declaring a state of emergency.

However, Prairie Island students enrolled in the Red Wing School District consistently have crossed the 90 percent graduation threshold, according to Prairie Island Education Manager Paul Dressen. That's made it the object of some envy by those in attendance at last week's free-flowing discussion, said Lower Sioux Indian Community member Darlene St. Clair, who works in the University of Minnesota's Department of American Indian Studies.

"How is it that Red Wing and Prairie Island have doubled the state's graduation rates?" said St. Clair, who helped run the seminar. "We're here to learn from them."

And the future looks even brighter, as the Minnesota Legislature approved an $18 million program providing support to school districts with at least 20 Native American students, as part of the larger education bill.

Red Wing doesn't have a magic formula, but it does lean heavily on a "unique" liaison program between Native American families and district officials that has proved highly effective for decades, said high school liaison Joan Hoffbeck.

Dressen spent 16 years as the district's first liaison, where he proved instrumental in boosting Prairie Island's graduation rate from about 20 percent to its current level of about 90 percent. He's since moved into the role of education manager, while the liaison program has been expanded to put one at the high school, middle school and elementary school buildings.

Native American cultural training for Minnesota teachers is held Thursday. The event was hosted by the Prairie Island Indian Community. (photo by Elizabeth Nida Obert - Post Bulletin)

Fill Cultural Gaps
The on-site liaisons fill cultural gaps while also offering up to five hours of tutoring services per pupil each week.

With about 150 Native American students to track in Red Wing, it's a time-consuming position that requires round-the-clock availability. Hoffbeck actually encourages Prairie Island's parents and students to contact her with questions or concerns after normal hours; she never turns her cellphone off.

"It's about trust," Hoffbeck said. "It takes time to trust people, and the history shows that their experiences … have not been good. Having someone in the schools where parents and students can trust them has been huge.

"We're not there to judge. We're there to be their support. It's the consistency thing where we help them through whatever they need."

On the surface, Red Wing appears to have created a template for Native American success in the classroom while deftly handling cultural differences. A closer look reveals some problems.

A 2012 complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights put an unwelcome spotlight on Red Wing's liaison program. Prairie Island was fully funding the program while limiting access only to members of its tribe and not other tribes. The unnamed complainant argued that was discrimination, which was confirmed through a federal investigation.

The complaint was resolved last summer when Prairie Island agreed to allow the liaisons to work with all Native Americans students enrolled at Red Wing. The school district also began using some of its federal funding to support the liaison program in the 2014-15 school year, thereby making it more inclusive.

The consequences of that national scrutiny could have positive unintended consequences.

Not All Tribes Doing Well
While Prairie Island's graduation rate have reportedly been about 90 percent in recent years, Red Wing's overall Native American graduation rate sits at just 62 percent since 2011, according to Director of Teaching and Learning Joe Jezierski. While Red Wing officials declined to release a breakdown of graduation rates by year or tribe, of which Minnesota has 11, the numbers suggest Native Americans without access to liaisons are well below the state and national average.

Red Wing Superintendent Karsten Anderson is confident the revamped liaison program will pay immediate dividends.

"We don't actually track tribal membership so it's hard for us to say — and we wouldn't share that information anyway — but we strongly believe the liaison program has had a positive impact on the kids who have been involved," Anderson said. "I think that helps with achievement and graduation rates."

In addition to putting federal dollars into the support system, Anderson has allocated thousands in staff development funds to educate his teachers and make them more culturally aware of the needs and background of Native American students. He paid $500 apiece for about 15 teachers to attend the recent seminar hosted by St. Cloud State professors.

Red Wing's Native American Parent co-chair Tori Campbell feels progress is being made, after being critical of the district last fall. For example, Red Wing allowed a Native American contingent to participate in the homecoming parade last fall, and a free educational offering is being planned for August at Prairie Island for Red Wing teachers interested in becoming more familiar with Native American culture.

Still, critical hurdles remain.

The free-flowing dialogue among educators at Prairie Island's seminar also prompted self criticism. One Red Wing teacher said her colleagues still "tend to take the ignorance and fill in the blanks with assumptions," which often creates new issues. Another recalled stepping in after observing a male colleague repeatedly singling out minorities for discipline, including Native American students.

"I was as nice as I could be — which wasn't that nice — but I got his attention," she told the room full of educators. "It wasn't pleasant, but it shook things up, and sometimes that's what you need. He's much better with all the students now."

Dressen added: "Are there issues and problems every day? Absolutely. But I feel like we're making progress."

'Huge Game Changer' In Funding
Minnesota recently overhauled its funding mechanism for Native American students. The change represents about a four-fold increase in dollars to be divided among all districts with at least 20 Native American students.

The old program, dubbed "Success for the Future," was widely criticized for providing financial support to just 32 schools per year via competitive grant. The four-year grant allowed educational programs to be built, but maintaining them proved impossible once funding vanished.

The new $18 million program was approved earlier this month as part of the larger education bill by the Minnesota Legislature. Red Wing is expected to receive about $65,000 annually to support its Native American students. It hadn't received a cent from the state's old program.

Gov. Mark Dayton's "bold" support of Native American education is a "huge game changer," Olson said.

"It's historic," Olson said. "It's exciting to be involved in Indian education in Minnesota again."

"It's a critical step in order to level the playing field and close the achievement gap," Anderson added.

Olson plans to simplify the bureaucratic process by replacing the state's 25-page application with a one-page form in order to begin dispersing funds on July 1. However, it remains to be seen how the funds will be used.

Campbell followed the discussion in the Legislature closely and hopes the new dollars will allow for a class focused on the Dakota language and the cultural history of Native Americans because "the history books are wrong." It's possible other schools around the state will simply use the new funding to mimic Red Wing's liaison program in hopes of achieving the same success.

However, St. Clair wants to make sure the new dollars come equipped with checks-and-balances so school districts aren't "making totem poles out of toilet paper rolls" while using the funds as a "cash cow." Despite those concerns, she's excited and optimistic about the new possibilities.

"It's been underfunded for so long," St. Clair said. "This is probably not catching us up to where we need to be … but it's long overdue and very welcome."

Native American Cultural Training

Dennis Olson discusses Native American cultural training at the Prairie Island Indian Community.
pictograph divider
Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us
Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us
pictograph divider
  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  
Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000 - 2015 of Vicki Williams Barry and Paul Barry.
Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo
The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the
Copyright © 1999 - 2015 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!