Paul Bownik admits that, as a Polish kid from the North Side, he may not be the obvious guy to infuse a classroom of 25 mostly Indian kids with the Dakota and Ojibwe tongues of their forebears.
Yet despite Bownik's roots in a far different culture, his classroom is what educators describe as language-rich, from the numbers in Dakota and Ojibwe on the wall to the way that Bownik weaves native words and phrases into everyday tasks, such as getting coats before bus time.
In its bid to raise dismal school outcomes for Indian students, the Minneapolis School District is staking money and staff on techniques such as those that Bownik and fellow teachers employ at mostly native Anishinabe Academy.
The district and Indian leaders this month approved a new five-year agreement with specific student achievement goals, which is a change from their first such pact. The latest agreement came just as Gov. Mark Dayton and Indian educators pledged at a summit to work together on improving Indian education statewide.
The first-of-its-kind 2006 agreement between the district and leaders of Indian agencies hasn't generated the accelerated test scores that both parties sought for the district's roughly 1,800 native students.
Indian students rank last among ethnic and racial groups in meeting the district's standard of getting to school 95 percent of the time, a strong predictor of achieving proficiency on state tests. The most recent data found only 44 percent of native high school students graduating.
"Looking at the data can be really depressing, and you can feel hopeless," conceded Danielle Grant, the district's Indian education director, hired midway through the first pact.
Still, she and others see less tangible improvements despite the scant progress. Parent and community leaders trust schools and teachers more, no small feat against a historical backdrop of boarding school brutality that's bred an ambivalence about schools among some Indian families. The earlier pact laying the groundwork for that was "a huge step for us," according to Noya Woodrich, who leads the nonprofit Division of Indian Work and co-signed the recent pact for the Indian community.
There's also a bright spot at the young end of the spectrum, where Bownik works. Nearly three-quarters of the district's Indian students left kindergarten last year with early literacy skills, a powerful predictor of reading fluency by third grade. That's up from fewer than half in 2007.
"We want to get the kids on track in younger grades," said Bownik, who began his district teaching at a mostly black North Side school.
At Anishinabe, 83 percent of the students entering kindergarten from its High 5 prekindergarten program met the district's literacy standard last year, compared with 70 percent for all district kindergartners.
That's because the school is in the fifth year of putting federal grants and the school's discretionary dollars into its youngest classrooms, hoping for a payoff in later grades. It's also requiring more of its youngest learners.
The pre-K students, for example, are in dual immersion classrooms that emphasize English and either Ojibwe or Dakota. Studies of dual immersion have found that students exposed to the rigors of picking up differing languages work their brains harder.
These students, and the kindergartners above them, attend all-day sessions, too, and class sizes are smaller through second grade. The big test of this investment will come next spring when the school's first crop of pre-K students reaches third grade and takes statewide tests.
Specific benchmarks set
Unlike the first district-Indian pact, the recent one sets specific targets for improving performance through 2016. They range from the number of kindergartners hitting literacy (94 percent) and arithmetic (85 percent) standards to the number of graduates who enter college within a year of graduation (53 percent).
"We're saying to kids: We are going places and we are taking you there," said Joe Rice, who co-chairs a citywide group of Indian educators.
The pact designates three schools where research-backed best practices for educating Indian students will be emphasized. Teachers will weave native culture and language into district standards for effective teaching. Besides Anishinabe, they are the All Nations program at South High School and Nawayee Center School, a small alternative school.
Teachers at these schools, with their union's agreement, will get extra protection from layoffs that disrupt the building of effective teaching teams. But to get that they'll need to attend several days of native-focused teacher training, work to improve their Dakota or Ojibwe language skills and commit to using the best practices.
Anishinabe Principal Steve Couture and predecessor Mike Huerth worked with the University of Minnesota and district Indian education specialists on integrating native values for learning into the district's traditional curriculum. Those include such values as respect, bravery, wisdom, humility and honesty.
Researchers found a positive correlation between using those techniques in the classroom and student academic growth and focus. A teacher might use a native-language translation of a familiar story, then ask questions for comprehension. The prekindergarten classes operate in native languages for several hours daily, something that attracts notice at home.
"I've heard from parents that they're really impressed with their children, and they don't understand [the language] and get curious and want to learn more," said Ogi Ruel, one of four adults in the classroom during immersion.
They range from natives such as Ruel, who grew fluent in Ojibwe during college, to teacher Karen LaMere, who got shifted into the school in a district staffing decision.
"In the Native American community, western education is not looked on kindly. But once they realize you're on their side and see that you're hitting the state benchmarks, they're on your side," Bownik said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438