Native American Academic Success

Addressing Social Determinants for Native American Academic Success

In my last post in 2014, I touched on the serious issues and social barriers impacting Native American youth development. Native youth experience inequalities in society every day, and it is important that we take a serious look at how our society engages them to improve their outcomes. Part of that work began in the schools by addressing things like school climate and classroom disparities.

Native American Youth Impacting Community

Since then, we’ve seen things progress in both positive and negative directions. Here in the Twin Cities we’ve seen racialized stereotypes and microaggressions continue to be perpetuated against Native American youth. We’ve also seen how entrenched many of the social barriers I detailed in my last post are. Little progress has been made in combatting disparities in child welfare and education. Poverty and police brutality continue to be experienced by Native communities at a disproportionate rate. All of this is among an increasingly toxic political rhetoric in the United States.

There have also been many positive improvements. The community witnessed a successful outcome after a district-wide discussion about Alexander Ramsey Middle School – named after a Minnesota governor who once issued bounties and called for the extermination of the Dakota peoples in Minnesota. Due in large part to the efforts of young people, the school was renamed Justice Page Middle School, honoring Minnesota’s first African American Supreme Court Justice. Another positive change to the social context surrounding Native Americans came by way of another youth-led movement: the occupation at Standing Rock and the resistance of the Keystone oil pipeline. These young indigenous activists made an important distinction in their work when they chose to call themselves “water protectors” instead of “protestors.” These movements have taken on these historical social barriers – such as the effects of colonization and environmental risks to indigenous communities – and shown tremendous potential for progress.

Effecting Societal Change Starts in the Classroom

The project I’m currently working on is rooted in wanting to better understand school climate’s effect on Native youth and how we can improve it. Funded by the Bush Foundation and Youthprise, we began a youth participatory research project in the community and recruited eight Native American research assistants. Our first year was dedicated to exploring our experiences and concerns with education. Our youth research assistants represented a broad range of educational experience – from students who identified themselves as academically successful to students who felt on the verge of dropping out of school. We additionally explored the academic literature, researched history and policy, interviewed tribal elders, family members and met with representatives from the American Indian Movement to learn more about their thoughts on schools over the past century. Doing so offered a glimpse into what structural causes might produce academic gaps, and our data supported the idea that academic structural issues were prominently connected to Native youth lack of success in school.

That carried us into our second year on the project. Our team developed our own indigenous-specific school climate survey which aimed to gather Native American youth experiences with these structural issues. We wanted to explore the connection between experiencing these structural barriers and typical academic indicators such as: attendance, progress to graduation and self-reported grade point average. Questions on the survey asked, for example, do you have a teacher who shares your ethnic or cultural background, have you experienced microaggressions like racialized mascots or names in your school, or are Native youth disciplined equally in your school. Through this survey we began to form a picture; after spending the summer gathering data from 125 surveys from three different communities in Minnesota, we found high levels of students experiencing these issues and that these experiences are significantly influencing the aforementioned academic indicators.

Improving Education for Native American Youth

We’re still in the process of analyzing all the data, but we’ve begun presenting preliminary findings. Two of our Native research assistants just returned from a conference in New Orleans, where they presented findings suggesting education and policy reform efforts that may improve upon these issues. One of these reform efforts is implementing restorative discipline practices within schools – meaning establishing accountability among administrators and teachers for racialized disparities in school discipline.

Additionally, we’ve received a lot of support for tribally specific curriculum – accurate and contemporary representations of Native people. Our data indicates that a lack of representation has a major negative influence on Native students’ grade point average. Boosting the presence of indigenous teachers and teachers of color was also indicated as a reform that could improve those academic issues.

Our research is promising. It indicates tangible steps we can take to improve outcomes for our Native American youth in the community. By fixing the flawed academic structures currently in place and improving upon classroom disparities, we can begin to provide an inclusive and engaging curriculum to help Native American youth succeed.

Katie Johnston-Goodstar

About the Author

Katie Johnston-Goodstar, Ph.D.

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