Better Learning Opportunities for Native Kids

The National Indian Education Association held its annual conference in Oklahoma City this week. NIEA represents Native American, Hawaii, and Alaskan youth and educators.  Most native kids go to public schools—130,000 in Oklahoma alone—but the federal Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) operates or authorizes 182 schools serving 41,000 students.
RiShawn Biddle (whom you may know as @DropoutNation) leads communication for NIEA and said, “One of the big issues for Native communities is that traditional public education, especially through BIE schools and traditional districts don’t allow for tribes or families to play lead decision-making roles in shaping education for their kids.” Biddle said, “Native educators and families also struggle with the fact that traditional public education doesn’t allow for culturally based education and Native language immersion to be critical parts of learning for their kids.”
Digital and blended learning present an opportunity for customization and for culturally based education.  Biddle said tribal governments are interested in using “online and blended learning to control education and provide choice to their communities.”  Online learning presents an emerging opportunity for tribes to “reach their members who may be attending schools outside of reservations.”
State Superintendent Janet Barresi kicked off the festivities today.  Barresi, a member of Chiefs for Change, announced a data initiative that will make it easier for schools and community groups to share information.
Attendees were excited about the potential for language learning apps to maintain tribal languages.  NIEA President Quinton Roman Nose was excited about the potential to share cultural heritage with young people in a compelling way.
The big concern expressed by native educators was about limited broadband in rural areas—an emerging edequality issue of this decade.  A few folks like Evan Marwell, who launched Education Superhighway, and Doug Levin, SETDA, are on the case.  Superintendent Barresi said creative partnerships are making a difference in Oklahoma.
Participants also wanted blends that enhance not reduce face-to-face interaction.  One attendee drew a line in the sand, “There will be no digital pow-wows!”
I mentioned several emerging opportunities that combined their expressed interest in cultural relevance with blended learning:
1. Tribal blends: flex model schools offer the opportunity for thematic application, integration, and extension making it easy to incorporate project-based interdisciplinary modules and offsite expeditions.
2. Self-blends: A tribe could offer language and social studies courses (directly or through a national partner).  Students around the country (where their state and district allow) could take an online class in Navajo language or culture.
3. Family co-op micro schools: several families could enroll their kids in a statewide virtual schools and share supervision, application, cultural education and extracurricular activities.
4. Tribal CMO: if a state won’t allow a tribe to serve directly as an LEA, in most states they can start a nonprofit (or series of related nonprofits) and apply for charters and create a managed charter network.  Schools would be open to all students but could have stated focus on native cultures and could also have optional tribal extracurricular activities.
While there are some great exceptions, like the award winning Chugach schools in Alaska, Native kids haven’t always been well served by public education either in terms of quality or cultural relevance.  There is a great opportunity to do much better right in front of us.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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