American Indian educators help drive graduation gains

23 states have high populations of American Indian students, and reservations see high turnover rates of teachers and administrators
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 23, 2015

American Indian students consistently trail all other minority groups on standardized tests. But this population had the largest reported graduation rate gain of any demographic between 2010-11 and 2012-13, rising from 65 percent to nearly 70 percent in two years.

The jump is perhaps due in part to greater numbers of native teachers and administrators returning to reservation districts, some experts say.

Some 23 states have high populations of American Indian students, and reservations see high turnover rates of teachers and administrators, says Charles Roessel, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“It’s hard to find a good principal anywhereÑadd in these other issues in Indian Country, such as lack of housing, salary and socioeconomics, it makes it even more challenging,” Roessel says.

Understanding the community

But American Indian teachers and administrators tend to train and come back to their communities to work more than any other definable population of new educators, says Joyce Silverthorne, director of the Office of Indian Education, part of the U.S. Department of Education.

“For our very small rural communities, it’s challenging for a new teacher or administrator to come into an area that is both isolated and interconnected,” Silverthorne says. “With our Native administrators and teachers, they understand the community, the other activities outside of school, and have that connection that is hard to train someone to build.”

Such educators may also have a better understanding of the living conditions on reservations that can hinder students’ ability to complete homeworkÑsuch as the great distances between homes and school and the lack of running water and electricity in some areas, she adds.

Fremont County School District #14, mostly populated with Indian students on a reservation in central Wyoming, named its first-ever American Indian school chief in March. The new superintendent, Owen St. Clair, is currently an elementary school principal in the district, and will take the job in July. He told local news outlets that he hopes to inspire students to eventually seek teaching as a career.

“Those who do come back [as teachers or administrators] make a huge improvement because they show what can happen through education,” Roessel says. “The opportunity to have these role models at our schools is something you can’t put a dollar figure or test score on. The value added is really important for Indian Country.”

Roessel recommends that non-Indian educators spend time in the community and ride the bus with students to see how far away and in what conditions they live. Learning about the historical trauma American Indians have suffered can provide newcomers with a better understanding of how education is viewed in the community and the challenges students and their families continue to face.