American Indian Youth Education

Respecting the Past, Preparing for the Future: American Indian Youth Education

Much of my work has been focused on figuring out how best to help students transition from high school to postsecondary education and careers. The past 20+ years of that focus has been directed to support American Indian students. American Indian youth have the lowest high school graduation rate of any minority; Minnesota ranks 49th out of 50 states in American Indian graduation.

In working with a former colleague, we developed a curriculum called Expanding the Circle: Respecting the Past, Preparing for the Future, which is focused on improving that graduation rate and helping American Indian students achieve their goals for the future. This landmark educational tool helps students learn more about their culture, practice skills needed for college and adult life, explore career paths and share their story with their peers.

Developing a Curriculum to Grow Retention Rates in Education

In 1995, David Johnson, director of the Institute of Community Integration (ICI), and I wrote and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund a demonstration project to develop strategies for the successful transition of American Indian students from high school to postsecondary education. Initially, we partnered with the Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. We worked with students at the Fond du Lac Ojibwa School to develop strategies to better prepare them for life after high school, both during the school year and during summer which examined what their academic life as students was like.

As we worked with American Indian youth on activities that stemmed from what we’d done previously with students with learning disabilities – we were able to develop specific strategies that effectively addressed the struggles facing students in transition; a struggle all students face, but especially American Indian students. For many, they are the first generation in their family to graduate from high school, let alone the first to go to college. This means there are few role models in the community for them to learn organically from about what it takes to prepare for college.

Over time, that work from the initial grant developed into our curriculum Expanding the Circle: Respecting the Past, Preparing for the Future, which was published in 2002. We’ve been fortunate to be able to conduct training for this curriculum around the world for indigenous populations. Through the course of the years, naturally, parts of the curriculum go out of date. So, it was important to me to be able to update Expanding the Circle into a second edition for 2017.

Four Themes for Addressing Transition

With our updated curriculum, as in the original publication, we identified four clear themes that are essential in addressing the needs of American Indian students in the process of transitioning out of high school:

Theme One: Discovery. We first like to pose the following question to a student: who am I as an American Indian? Our curriculum is based around the resiliency theory, which says that those who are successful and move forward in life are able to maintain a strong sense of self and support within the community. And by examining support systems in the community, we get a sense of what education means to community members historically and help build a better sense of the importance of education within the Indian community. Additionally, we focus on a student’s self-esteem. By looking at specific accomplishments a student has made thus far in life, they can begin to discover who they are.

Theme Two: Framework. Taking educational goals into account, we determine the skills that a student needs in order to move forward in life as a functioning adult. These aren’t necessarily academic skills; skills like goal setting and being an advocate for yourself are just as important. This includes finding out what a student’s learning style is, then determine what is needed and how to appropriately ask for help. Learning organizational skills adds to this framework as well as establishing how to budget money, manage time and solve real-life problems. Another aspect of this Theme Two is creating an understanding of diversity awareness. Many American Indian kids grow up in their own community with those of the same tribe, resulting in a lack of familiarity with a wide variety of people and cultures. Working with the student to help them understand how people are different and have different life experiences is an important step in the development as an adult.

Theme Three: Choice. Here we talk about what the differences between high school and college truly are, and how that might affect what kind of dreams a student has for themselves in the future. Building from that, we implement career development activities to determine what career interests and aptitudes they may have. We emphasize exposure – whether that’s filling out job applications, practicing for interviews or taking visits to college campuses – to really show how many possible options there are. We discuss that the military is also a postsecondary option. It’s important that the student knows that the military is a viable career, but to make that choice with the same sort of attentiveness that we give to college.

Theme Four: Reflection. The final stage of Expanding the Circle has students pulling together everything they’ve learned through the course of the curriculum. They put together a “story about you,” where they get up in front of their peers and talk about themselves, what they’ve learned and how they see their future. After a final feast with parents and siblings, teachers and others, students collect their portfolio where they have started the organizational process of collecting and storing important information for the future – an organizational tool we hope they use throughout their lives.

Jean Echternacht

About the Author

Jean Echternacht, Ed.D.

  • Jean Echternacht, Ed.D.
  • Research Associate
  • Institute on Community Integration (Retired)

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