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For decades, American Indians have not trusted schools, and why would they? American Indian kids went to boarding school to unlearn language and culture. Indian schools were established to make sure the Indian community wouldn't get to teach. As Minneapolis Indian Education director Danielle Grant put it, "Education was something that was happening to us."
In January the Minneapolis school district will sign a revised Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), renewing a 2006 commitment by the Metro Urban Indian Directors and Minneapolis Public Schools to work together at changing those old dynamics. The agreement is likely the only one like it in the nation.
The MOA designates Anishinabe Academy, South High School's All Nations program and Nawayee Center School, a contracted alternative school, as best practice sites focusing on American Indian language and culture. It establishes programs for community engagement and professional development and sets achievement goals for Native students. The agreement's plan to establish an interview and select process and protections against seniority-based "bumping" for teachers at best practice schools will depend on Minneapolis teacher contract negotiations.
Grant and others presented the revised memorandum at the December 20 Minneapolis school board meeting. "I am truly honored to actually sit and listen to this," said board member Hussein Samatar. "I hope one day to see that the African American community could also do what is happening here."
In 2010 only 45 percent of Minnesota American Indian high school seniors graduated on time, less than any other ethnic group in the state. This year, only 60 percent of third graders met or exceeded state reading standards. Poverty undeniably plays a role in those numbers, but Grant believes distrust of the school system has to do with it, too. "It leads to our students really being implicitly or explicitly told it doesn't matter. What you're doing in school doesn't matter," she said.
Needless to say, getting community input on the MOA was a priority, and not a simple one, according to Louise Matson, who worked with the community engagement committee. "You want to engage them on something that's meaningful, because we've been let down a lot of times," she said. The engagement group distributed a short survey, created a Facebook page and held a teen focus group at South High school. They continuously invited people to twice-monthly meetings.
Matson said she was surprised by the number of requests she got for more opportunities to be involved. As a result, the new agreement creates a district-wide youth council and promotes the Title VII Indian Parent Committee as a place for parent engagement. The agreement commits the district to continuing its Native-specific Connecting Parents to Educational Opportunities workshops, which teach parents how to get involved with their child's school.
Matson said the best way for community members to get involved in the agreement's implementation is by attending meetings of the Phillips Indian Educators (PIE). The superintendent meets with PIE monthly.
Five years ago, when the original MOA was signed, teachers at best practices schools had limited resources showing them how to "perpetuate traditional ways of knowing," "strengthen cultural identity," and "increase language proficiency," all requirements written into the first memorandum. So in 2009 the University of Minnesota partnered with Minneapolis Public Schools, under the name Urban Indian Education Partnership, to integrate state and district education standards with the Seven Grandfather Teachings of bravery, honesty, wisdom, respect, love, humility and truth, from Anishinabe and Dakota traditions.
Teachers from all over the district can attend August trainings that explain how to incorporate those cultural teachings into everything from language learning to math. Teachers at best practice sites are encouraged to participate in a coaching program where American Indian community members observe classrooms and give feedback on how to teach in a culturally appropriate way.
In Minneapolis Public Schools' system of seniority-based teacher placement, it's tough to require teachers to use the trainings. Not everyone buys in. The new agreement would allow best practice sites to interview and select teachers who would be safe from layoffs and seniority-based "bumping." In exchange, teachers would be required to sign an agreement acknowledging the special status of the schools. They would attend a mandatory orientation, participate in professional development workshops and incorporate Anishinabe or Dakota language in the classroom.
Those aspects of the agreement are contingent on Minneapolis teacher contract negotiations. Grant said the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has been supportive. "The intention is that we will have teachers, who teach at Anishinabe and All Nations, who are there because they want to be doing this work," she said. "It's not fair to a teacher to be placed at a site where there's expectations that are not fully understood or explained to them, and it's also not fair to the program." Matson said the exceptions requested are similar to those granted to immersion schools.
American Indians aren't the only ones with an agreement with the district to turn around ugly, old patterns. In 2008, Minneapolis Public Schools and African American community members signed the Covenant. Although the document's language is nearly identical to the MOA's, its implementation looks very different.
The Covenant's working group hasn't met in over a year. Turnover in the district and a conflict over what programs would be implemented through the agreement led to a halt in the once-regular meetings between African American community members and the district.
District spokesperson Stan Alleyne denies that the covenant is dead, "There will be some announcements in the near future on a new direction for it," he said, adding that a new direction will likely mean new people. He said the district plans to engage a broader swath of the African American community, and the superintendent is looking for the right people to lead the effort. Meanwhile, he said much of the Covenant's work is embedded into what the district is doing already.
Bill English, of the Coalition of Black Churches, participated in the Covenant's original working group. He said he worries that community members involved with writing the document will not be invited back to the table. "If you leave them out and don't involve them then they have every right to criticize you," he said.
Grant said the partnerships created through the MOA helped Indian Education avoid layoffs and budget cuts, and led to new funding opportunities. More importantly, though, teachers report results in the classroom.
"The first MOA, it was an achievement even to get the parties to the table," she said. The new MOA calls for improved graduation rates and test scores. "We have these relationships, we have this understanding, let's actually set performance targets."
This article was reprinted with permission from the Twin Cities Daily Planet, at: www.tcdailyplanet.net.