Dayton aims to repair Indian education system

The state and the 11 tribes are working side by side on the thorny issues around Indian education

The dismal statistics are too familiar: American Indian students' test scores lag behind those of their white peers, their dropout rates are higher and alcohol abuse is more frequent.

On Monday, Gov. Mark Dayton kicked off the first Governor's American Indian Education summit to tackle the vexing issues.

"Something is missing," Dayton said at the opening of the daylong meeting. "Something is either not there that should be there or is there and is being misdirected, and that's the purpose of this summit."

While the gubernatorial imprimatur on the summit was unique, the DFL governor is at the end of a long line of officials who, over the years, have brought together top minds in the state to cope with the problem. The St. Paul gathering stands out because this time, the state and the 11 tribes are working side by side on the thorny issues surrounding Indian education, said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the state Education Department.

After speaking at the summit, Dayton said he is unsure he can resolve those issues in the remaining three years of his term.

"I'm going to do my very best," he said. "We will see."

The summit developed after Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius met with leaders from all 11 tribal Indian Nations in November on how to best educate Native American students.

About 130 people showed up for Monday's summit, including tribal leaders and educators. The event featured lofty session titles -- "Action Planning for Transformation of Indian Education" read one -- but a very simple goal.

"We've come together ... to make a difference to our children," Cassellius said.

The tribes and the department have already agreed the department will hire an Indian Education Director and keep the tribes informed of developments related to Native American students at the Capitol.

By day's end, participants brainstormed a number of ideas, including a possible overhaul of the state's Indian education. The department will create a more detailed plan in coming weeks.

Dayton said watching the tribes and his commissioner came together is how he likes to see his administration operate.

It is, he said, "exactly the kind of outreach and the kind of listening that I really stress."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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