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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
American Cultural Training
Olson discusses Native American cultural training at the Prairie
Island Indian Community.
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