DE SMET, Idaho — Families of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe could benefit from help from the federal government.
The right kind of help, that is – a point made clear on Friday when two senior Department of Education officials visited the Benewah County Tribal School.
“It’s important that education is not something that is done to us,” said Chris Meyer, director of education for the tribe.
Chief James Allan was more blunt, recalling that a long time ago “the government wanted to wipe us out”.
However, the tribal leaders found a receptive audience in Amy Loyd, senior adviser to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona; and Hollie Mackey, executive director of a White House initiative to advance education and economic opportunity for Native Americans.
Even better, Loyd is a Zuni Pueblo and Mackey is Northern Cheyenne, which gave weight to Loyd’s promise to speak “nation to nation.”
The occasion, officially, was the announcement of a $1 million federal grant to support Native American languages nationwide. The grant aims to “maintain, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans and Alaska Natives to use, practice, maintain, and revitalize their languages…”.
However, a panel discussion in the school library focused on the ongoing academic struggles of Native American children, particularly at the tribe’s K-8 School and Lakeside Public High School in Plummer.
Bad weather in Washington, DC, forced Cardona to abandon his flight to northern Idaho on Thursday. However, Loyd and Mackey were already in the field.
Everyone around the table knew the dismal statistics, the product of poverty, lack of Native American teachers, parental indifference and lack of funds.
According to federal statistics, 70% of Native American students who start kindergarten will graduate from high school, compared to a national average of 82%.
Only 13% of Native adults have a college degree, compared to 28% of all Americans.
It’s the same story at Coeur d’Alene Tribal School, a 93-student tribal-controlled subsidized school funded by the Bureau of Indian Education.
“It’s not good, it’s not good at all,” Meyer said of the tribal students’ recent scores on standardized tests. Meyer also cited a failure rate that she called “enormous.”
The Indian Bureau of Education is responsible for funding tribal education for isolated rural areas. Its task is to help remove barriers to education for the Native American population, support teacher development, improve communications, and offer technical assistance and advice.
The level of funding has been criticized as inadequate, as has the management of these funds by the office.
Pointing to the poor education system as a reason for extreme poverty on Native American reservations across the country, a group convened by then Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a report in 2014 that called the office “a blot on our nation’s history” and expressed an urgent need for reform.
As expected, school results were poor.
Only about 15% of Bureau of Indian Education students passed their school’s standardized English exam in the 2018-2019 school year, and only 1 in 10 passed in math, according to federal records obtained by The Arizona Republic and ProPublica.
However, President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 includes $1.3 billion in funding to invest in office initiatives that would support Indigenous students and teachers from early childhood through college, an increase $110.6 million from the level adopted in 2021.
“It’s all about the money,” Allan said, reflecting a mood within the tribe that for decades swung between cautious optimism and desperation.
However, the Coeur d’Alene tribal leaders acknowledged some shortcomings on their side, including the lack of Native American teachers and the indifference of some parents.
“I would say there needs to be more Indigenous teachers and principals,” said Tina Strong, principal and superintendent of the school. “We try to encourage that, but we don’t get a lot of buy-in.”
This forces the district to hire from outside, with mixed results.
“We go through a lot of teachers because of our location,” Strong said. “But as a teacher, if you don’t understand the community and the way of life – the culture – it’s going to project into your classroom, and your kids will see it.”
The problems of poverty and parental indifference are more difficult.
Allan spoke of the importance of “having both parents side by side with their children, to help them succeed”.
School board member Cheyenne Michelle said the district is continually working to create space for families to come together and build relationships.
Loyd and Mackey understand the obstacles, at least in general terms.
Loyd was director of education for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska, leading a network of schools and wraparound services for Native American and Alaska Native communities.
Mackey’s graduate research has examined the structural inequality of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized populations in educational leadership and public policy.
After the round table, they visited the school. They participated in a first-grade language class at Coeur d’Alene, built hide and wood drums, and held a meeting with the students in the school gymnasium.
Loyd promised to bring the tribe’s concerns to Cardona, but said she “believes the solutions moving forward are here in the tribe.
“And we’re here to learn from the tribe what their vision is, what they want and need for their youth and their future…and how the federal government can help.”