Lawmakers consider Native American education bills

BISMARCK—Native American students are North Dakota’s future workers and more needs to be done to help them succeed, the state’s top education official said.

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction is supporting legislation this session aimed at improving student performance.

There are more than 10,000 Native American students in North Dakota schools, with a graduation rate of 57 percent, Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall said in a speech last week.

At the same time, a larger percentage of Native American youth remain in the state after graduation than other students, state Superintendent Wayne Sanstead said.

“I think targeting the Native American youth as a particular group can speak to North Dakota’s future, especially in the area of jobs and growth,” Sanstead said. “Both of those will be impacted by a better native student population.”

State lawmakers will hear testimony Wednesday on Senate Bill 2130 to provide $265,400 to fund a state director of Indian education for the next two years. Assistant Superintendent Bob Marthaller said there is not a focus within DPI now on Indian education issues and other states have similar positions.

Lawmakers heard testimony last week on House Bill 1049, which proposes DPI study Indian education issues to develop criteria for grants to low-performing schools.

The study would look at parental involvement, governance models, best practices elsewhere and potential barriers to student achievement. The bill requests $100,000 for the study.

Four Winds High School Principal John Lohnes said the three major issues in Fort Totten that contribute to low levels of achievement are lack of parental involvement, poverty and isolation. He thinks it would be a good gesture for the state to offer grants to schools.

Indian education is complex due to the number of entities involved, said Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. This includes the state, the tribes and the Bureau of Indian Education. There can also be multiple school boards within a tribe, Davis said.

“So, it gets complex as far as curriculum, funding, jurisdiction, those types of things,” he said.

Turtle Mountain Community College President Jim Davis told lawmakers that there needs to be transformational change throughout the whole system.

“With our school systems in North Dakota that primarily educate our Native American students, the system is broke. It’s been broke for a lot of years,” said Davis, whose background includes working at various levels of education.

In a bill hearing, Rep. Phil Mueller, D-Valley City, asked if problems could be solved by putting tribal schools under the state Department of Public Instruction. Scott Davis said there would be opposition to that, but he saw potential for additional partnerships.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, said she understands the need for a study, but the state needs to get its arms around what it wants as an outcome.

“The growing population in the state of North Dakota is the Native American population. They are our workers of the future, and so we have to guarantee that they are getting a good, strong education and keeping them in schools,” she said.

A subcommittee was appointed to look further into the matter.

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