MINNEAPOLIS — Brightly colored trunks on wheels are scattered throughout classrooms in all elementary- and middle-school buildings in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District. Inside, the contents vary greatly, but are bound together by a central theme: American Indian culture and heritage.
Each item ties into a core subject. For instance, elementary students explore a trunk filled with items made from a buffalo — everything from the hide and spoons made from its horns to a sewing kit made from its dried bladder.
"It's tied to the curriculum because we talk about not wasting," said Becky Buck, director of the district's American Indian Education program. "We tell the story of how an animal gives its life and how it's important to use every part."
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Sixth-graders get excited about unpacking the fur trunk, which is filled with native animal hides, rubber footprints and bones. This is the year they learn about the fur trade, a unit that's often taught from the European perspective, said Robin Nelson, an academic and cultural adviser in the same office.
"So we developed a curriculum and an online video game on the fur trade, from the Ojibwe perspective," she said.
None of this would have ever come to fruition, she said, without direction from members of the district's American Indian Parent Advisory Committee. This project was at the top of their wish list from the very beginning — and so it became a priority for Nelson, her colleagues, and district officials.
Despite the headway they've made in infusing the mainstream curriculum with American Indian culture, the district has never received a vote of concurrence — a formal indication that parents feel the district is meeting the unique cultural needs of their students — from its American Indian Parent Advisory Committee.
Nelson said that's not necessarily a negative thing. As long as Native American student outcomes lag behind those of their peers, she adds, the onus to do better should rest on the shoulders of the adults in the school system.
Statewide, American Indian students only make up 2 percent of the student population. In terms of academic outcomes, they consistently perform behind their peers when it comes to graduation rates and standardized test scores. They're also disproportionately represented in special education and suspension and expulsion rates.
"(The parents are) just saying, 'This is a complex problem. We're walking in the right direction. What's our game plan for this coming year?'" Nelson said. "What it does is it sets up a relationship between the school board, the Indian Education Program, and the Parent Advisory Group to be able to come together, to work out a plan, to move forward."
The North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District is one of only a few districts serving more than 10 American Indian students in Minnesota that has repeatedly received a vote of non-concurrence.
But the success of this process comes down to more than a yes or no vote. It really depends more on the parent group's level of engagement and the district's willingness to listen. On this level, some American Indian Education programs are making more headway than others.
The American Indian Parent Advisory Committee vote was established in 2015, when the state created the American Indian Education Aid program to support culturally relevant programming at districts, charter schools and tribal schools with at least 20 American Indian students.
In order to be eligible for state funding for American Indian Education programming, applicants must invite American Indian parents and students to cast a vote each year, indicating whether they feel the district is doing an adequate job of meeting the unique academic and cultural needs of its American Indian students.
It's a mandated process that's unique to Native American students and their families, who have rights as sovereign nations "to be able to say what the needs of our own children are — especially the cultural needs, which were denied to us for so many years," said Ramona Kitto Stately, program coordinator of the Osseo Area Schools district's American Indian Education Program and chair of the Minnesota Indian Education Association.
It wasn't all that long ago, Stately added, that American Indian children were separated from their families and sent to boarding schools in Minnesota, where they were stripped of their language and cultural identity. In fact, her 56-year-old husband experienced public school this way.
The parent vote — a recently added accountability measure tacked on to American Indian Education programs — gives parents "a pretty strong voice," she said.
Jane Harstad, director of the Office of Indian Education at the state Department of Education, considers the parent vote key to motivating American Indian parents to get involved in their local Parent Advisory Committees. It gives them some level of assurance that districts will take their feedback seriously.
"What it amounts to is there's a mistrust of the education system by Native Americans because it's been used as a weapon of assimilation. So when parents are distrustful of a system that in the past has not treated their students well, it's hard for them to advocate and be proponents of educational change," she said.
And when students don't see themselves reflected in their history books or decorations on the school walls — especially as they become more self-aware heading into middle school — they don't feel as connected to their learning environment, Harstad said.
"It's the absent narrative that's there that makes them less engaged than others," Harstad said.
In the case of a vote of non-concurrence, school boards have 60 days to respond to the specific concerns outlined in the parent group's resolution.
Out of the 144 districts that have filed their parent votes with the state Department of Education since 2015, parent groups have issued a vote of non-concurrence at least 31 times. (The state is still in the process of following up with a number of districts that either didn't participate or haven't yet reported their parent vote.)
The reasons for these non-concurrence votes vary from parent group to parent group. But Harstad, who works closely with districts that fall into this category, said there are some common parent requests, including more cultural programming and professional development for teachers about American Indian history and culture.
She said her office also recently created a guide that lays out 33 indicators of a strong American Indian Education program. Empowered by this new tool, she said some parent committees have begun advocating for more.
"I heard from many parent committees this year that said, 'We used this as a starting point and it opened up conversations we never thought we could have with the school district that we're having now,'" she said.
Monica Richards has served on Osseo's American Indian Parent Advisory Committee for the past nine years. While she's not Native American, both of her children are Pine Ridge Lakota, so she joined the parent group to ensure they saw themselves reflected in the school environment.
Over the past three years, the parent advisory group she belongs to has issued both votes of concurrence and non-concurrence, with an emphasis on the need for more teacher training specific to Native American culture.
"Teacher training is huge," she said. "If the teachers don't understand why Indian Education is there — and the fact that it is mandated by the state and that there are federal rules as well — they tend to think of it as a social activity that takes away from learning, instead of enhancing learning."
Stately said the American Indian Education Program in Osseo is currently serving more than 200 American Indian students, with 26 different tribes represented in that student population.
In general, she's pleased with how active the district's parent advisory group is, as well as how receptive district leadership has been to the parents' feedback. When the process works well, American Indian students benefit, as evidenced by the projects implemented by her office over the years.
For instance, every year she takes a group of parents and students on a weekend excursion to a horse farm for a hands-on lesson on self-regulation. Everyone spends time in the pasture, learning how to approach the horses.
"A horse will assess you without making you feel judged," she said. "His ears might go back. He might actually turn his whole back to you. Your job is to go out slowly, sense how your energy is affecting them, and change it."
In the Onamia Public Schools district, the past three years have all been marked by a vote of concurrence. It's noteworthy because they have a particularly active parent group, with about 60 parents voting this year and about 120 voting the year prior, said Superintendent Jason Vold.
But that doesn't mean the district has satisfied every cultural need of its American Indian students. Vold and the district's Indian Education Director, Chris Nayquonabe, are in constant communication with the district's Native American parent group and are adding new cultural elements to school programming each year — everything from adding the Flag Song to their homecoming football game to busing teachers and staff out to the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation at the start of the school year for a meet-and-greet.
They have a growing Ojibwe language program, spurred by parent demand. The district currently offers language classes to elementary students, and to high schoolers who are able to enroll in Ojibwe language classes for college credit. And next year, they're looking to expand offerings to middle schoolers.
"Every year, the parents want more," Vold said. "They want more of it in the classroom — like teaching about tribal government. They want more Native teachers and staff. Right now we are 54 percent Native in our school and we have two Native staff people."
The Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools district has yet to receive a vote of concurrence from its American Indian Education Parent Advisory Committee. In this case, these votes are more indicative of a system that's not working as intended.
Antony Stately, chair of the district's parent advisory committee, said he's in the process of submitting the latest vote of non-concurrence to the district and the state, which will outline the rationale for their vote.
"It's primarily focused around our perception that the district really has not significantly invested the resources and the supports to develop and implement an Indian Education program," he said in an interview. "They treat us as though we really have no voice at all."
He said the lines of communication between the parent group and school administrators and board members have become strained — so much so that many American Indian parents have stopped participating in the group.
"Parents have stopped coming to the meetings, because they're frustrated," he said. "We can't move some of our initiatives and some of the things we want to do along."
Stately said Wayne Wells, the district's American Indian student support services coordinator, is well-qualified for the position: He speaks the Dakota language, was raised in a traditional way and understands all of the ceremonies.
But he feels the district isn't tapping into Wells' cultural expertise. Rather, they're using him to pull American Indian students out for academic interventions — a type of service that Stately believes shouldn't fall on the Indian Education program.
Kevin Schuttinger, the district's director of teaching and learning, said many of these academic interventions and supports were actually put in place, based on requests he and his team had received from members of the American Indian parent committee.
"One other request from the parent committee — at the end of last year — was more training, professional development (on) cultural diversity and equity for all," Shuttinger added. "As a district, we've invested a great deal of money and time into really helping every single staff person understand how their role affects students. And helping them build capacity in culturally responsive teaching."
He recounted a number of attempts to fresh-start lines of communication between district staff and the American Indian parent committee — including a mediated session run by Harstad — and said he's always open to a reboot. But he's equally frustrated with how things have played out in recent years.
"What's frustrating for me is we started (last) September with open and honest conversation and deep collaboration," he said. "Sometime in January or February, something fell away. I don't know what, to be honest. What's challenging is I've called, I've emailed. I haven't heard back."
The father of twin boys in the district, who are now in middle school, Stately's frustrations with the district are born out of repeat experiences advocating for his kids. Many of these situations, he explains, could have been avoided had district staff consulted American Indian parents ahead of time or been receptive of their feedback.
For instance, when his sons started kindergarten they lost interest in school just a few weeks into the school year. When he asked them what was going on, they said older kids in the building were calling them "girls" because they wore their hair long, in braids.
When Stately brought his concerns to the attention of their classroom teacher, she agreed to have a conversation about bullying and valuing diversity. But the real issue — older students who needed to hear this same message — went unaddressed, he said, despite his requests for a schoolwide message about inclusion to be delivered.
"From my perspective, as a parent, what's left is my children end up feeling they have to carry that burden because the institution didn't do something to respond," he said.
Likewise, he recalled the time his sons brought up a cartoon they'd viewed about Christopher Columbus in their fourth-grade class one day. The cartoon showed Columbus landing on the beach and being greeted by naked Indians, his sons said. The portrayal made them feel bad because everyone in class was laughing at the naked Indians.
Again, he went to their teacher, asking her to put herself in his sons' shoes and facilitate some reconciliation in her classroom.
"I have a responsibility in my current role to utilize all the assets I have — including my education — to actually change the way the system is, so that children who come up behind my children, and long after, benefit from the work we're trying to accomplish," he said.
The nonprofit news outlet MinnPost provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.