Bdote Learning Center opens in South Minneapolis


bdote learning center opens in south minneapolis 1.jpg On Aug. 25, a sunny morning in

Minneapolis, Bdote Learning Center opened. The historic beginning

marked the end of six years of planning and developing as –

children entered the school to study what all children learn in

Kindergarten to third grade – except that they will be learning in

the Ojibwe and Dakota languages. These languages, now only spoken by

a few, are reflected throughout Minnesota in place names and the very

names of the city and state where the school is located.

Mike Huerth is Bdote’s first

principal. “One thing that attracted me to this school is my love

of the Ojibwe language. I have wanted to learn the language since my

high school days but somehow, throughout my career in education, I

never seemed to have had the time to learn my mother tongue,” he


The children swarmed around the

principal and he returned their affection with a pat or some softly

spoken instructions. He remembered the experiences of children who

went to boarding school. Unlike then – when English was forced on

children – Ojibwe and Dakota are spoken in a friendly environment.

The first day of school was expected

to be somewhat difficult for most of the children. There are a very

few who come from day care and pre-school experiences where they did

learn Ojibwe and Dakota. For these children, it is easy to converse

with the teachers and as time goes by they will also help the other

children learn through the natural propensity for children to share

language, no matter which one it is.

On Aug. 24, Huerth and the teachers

and some of the board members gathered for two important ceremonies:

a pipe ceremony conducted by Bdote’s Curriculum Coordinator Deidre

WhiteMan and an Ojibwe water ceremony, led by second and third grade

teacher Lisa Bellanger. Those ceremonies marked the end of a six-year

journey from when the idea of a language immersion school was

proposed to moving into St. Albert’s at 3216 E. 29th Street in

South Minneapolis. The many words of encouragement and hard

determination pushed the school forward through what seemed to the

Bdote board of directors, nearly impossible odds.

Huerth looks forward to a successful

year. The school has a capacity of 104 for the 2014-15 school year

and over 90 students are enrolled. Full enrollment is likely once

families make their choices in the next few days.

Teachers include Beth Brown (Dakota

Kindergarten); Jolene New Holy (Dakota first, second and third

grades); Jarydd Boston (Dakota first, second and third grades);

Persia Erdrich and Katie Carlson (Ojibwe Kindergarten); David Butler

(Ojibwe first grade); Lisa Bellanger (Ojibwe second and third grade).

They are joined by Liz Cates (music and art) and Emmy Her Many Horses

(Special Education).

WhiteMan worked with artists and

curriculum developers for several months to prepare materials for the

students. The art and written materials will help students better

understand spelling and grammar in Ojibwe and Dakota and give them

content for lessons.

Elaine Salinas, Chair of the Bdote

board knows the story of the development of the school. “Beginning

in 2008,” she said, “a group of Indian educators, Native language

activists and community members began to discuss a new kind of school

for Indian children. We envisioned a school that would honor and

incorporate the cultures and languages indigenous to Minnesota, as

well as a school that would develop and nurture the genius of Indian

children – a school unlike any school that had ever existed.”

The Minneapolis Public Schools agreed

with this vision and it was looking for a school to replace Oh Day

Aki Charter School that they had closed earlier that year due to


Over the next six years, Salinas said

the group met regularly to formulate a vision and plan for the

school. “We originally pursued the idea of a ‘self-governed’ school

only to learn one year into the process that MPS would not

financially support such a start-up as originally promised. We then

decided to pursue a charter with the belief that the chartering

process would enable us to create the kind of school that would not

be constrained by the restrictions and requirements of regular public

schools.”bdote learning center opens in south minneapolis.jpg

Salinas and her group pursued several

authorizers for our charter school and finally found an understanding

and supportive single purpose authorizer, Innovative Quality Schools

– the first single purpose charter school authorizer approved by

the Minnesota Department of Education. They shared a vision for a

school that would not only honor indigenous languages but allow it to

deliver academic instruction through the languages.

The group sought approval for a

charter school affidavit by the state education department, which

occurred after several months and many discussions. “The

misunderstanding that MDE initially held was that Bdote would be a

school that would serve Indian children exclusively and therefore be

a ‘race specific school.’ We clarified that Bdote was not

intended to serve only Indian children and would be open to any child

interested in learning the Ojibwe and Dakota languages. We also

clarified that according to a huge body of case law, Indians are

considered political groups, not racial groups, by the federal

government based on our historic government-to-government

relationship,” Salinas said.

The Minnesota

Department of Education approved the charter for Bdote Learning

Center in 2013. Since that time, the Bdote board worked to shape the

curriculum, hire the teachers, find adequate facilities for the

school and identify the school’s leader. A new door opened for

Minneapolis children and their families into a school where

Minnesota’s native languages will be heard and learned in every

day. As the school progresses and a grade is added each year, fluency

in the Ojibwe and Dakota languages will be heard among students

throughout the school, reversing out a dark past of forced English

language learning based on corporal punishment.

Top photo: Bdote Learning Center, hosted at St. Albert the Great, features total immersion in Dakota and Ojibwe. Curriculum will be adapted, written and taught in both languages by licensed teachers with guidance from lders. English is introduced as a language art in third grade. (Photo by Alfred Walking Bull.)

Bottom photo: Families of the first 90 enrolled students share a meal. (Photo by Lloyd C. Wittstock)