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Celebrating American Indian Heritage Boosts Achievement

Learning and preserving their history and culture is key to Native American student success

By Cindy Long


Looking back at her school days, Henrietta Mann, a Cheyenne educator in Weatherford, Oklahoma, says “I learned my history is absent and my culture is not present.”

Today, Mann is working with her school district and the local Native American Task Force to make sure Native American students in her community don’t have the same experience she did.

Too often the history, culture and contributions of American Indians and Alaska Natives are absent from the curricula taught in many school systems across the country, even in districts with a high population of Native American students.

To address this problem, the Weatherford school district began a Community Conversation program, funded by a National Education Association (NEA) grant from the Public Engagement Project/ Family School Community Partnership, to bring together parents, students, and educators to talk about their concerns and the best way to increase the achievement among Native Americans.

After listening to the conversations, the district provided more professional development opportunities in Native American culture for faculty, offered Weatherford students more cultural events and field trips, and established a Native American Club at Weatherford High School.

Their efforts are paying off -- Native American math performance increased from 1080 to 1397 (on Oklahoma's API scale of 1500) over the past two years; and Native American reading performance increased from 1059 to 1272.

A new NEA resource guide, Focus on What Works, highlights the Weatherford program as a model for other schools districts. The guide provides background on America’s original citizens and details programs like Weatherford’s that have helped boost student achievement, test scores and graduation rates for American Indian and Alaska Native students.

"There are steps we can take today to preserve the history and culture of the past, while preparing American Indian and Alaska Native students for the future,” says said Dennis Van Roekel, president of NEA.

There are approximately 644,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in K–12 public schools across America. Ninety percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native students attend regular public schools, and more than 170,000 teachers in America’s public schools are American Indian and Alaska Native.

Despite the large numbers, data for this diverse group is often missing or incomplete from education research and literature, and their rich history and culture is left out of most school curricula, leading to the “invisibility factor” experienced by this population.

Focus on What Works (PDF) identifies action-driven initiatives and promising public school programs that show how incorporating this information into lesson plans boosts academic achievement among the American Indian and Alaska Native students.

In honor of National American Indian Heritage Month, NEA is also offering recommended reading lists to introduce students to Native American history and culture. Titles are listed by grade level and include fiction, nonfiction and poetry.


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