South Dakota takes new direction to improve Indian education

By Chet Brokaw
South Dakota (AP) October 2010

The state Education Department is collaborating with teachers, school administrators and others to take a new approach to improving academic achievement and graduation rates among American Indian students, who as a group lag behind South Dakota’s non-Indian students.

Five-year goals and plans to improve American Indian students’ performance will be put together by the Indian Education Advisory Council, a group of educators from across the state who have a lot of experience in teaching those students, said LuAnn Werdel, director of Indian education for the state Education Department.

“It’s going to take time,” said Werdel, a member of the Sisston-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe who was appointed state director of Indian Education in January.

“All the problems we’re talking about didn’t happen overnight. This has been going for the last 100 years. It’s going to be a challenge,” Werdel said.

One of the goals of an education initiative started in 2006 by Gov. Mike Rounds was to improve education for American Indian students, but the effort has lacked focus. Officials now want to give it more attention.

In tests given last spring as part of the No Child Left Behind school-improvement law, 82 percent of white students scored advanced or proficient in math, compared to only 48 percent of American Indian students. The tests also reported that 80 percent of white students and 50 percent of Native American students scored at the advance or proficient level in reading.

And while 92 percent of white students graduated from high school, only 65 percent of American Indian students graduated.

During a discussion last week at the state’s seventh annual Indian Education Summit, state Education Secretary Tom Oster said the state Education Department tried for years to dictate ways to improve the education of Native American students.

“We know that hasn’t worked,” Oster said.

A draft goal calls for closing the achievement and graduation gaps between Indian and non-Indian students in the next five years. The Indian Advisory Council, not the state Education Department, will set realistic details such as how much that gap can be narrowed each year and what methods are used to do that, Oster said.

“We’ve all said we want to address this, but we’ve not gotten down to how we’re going to do it and what the goal is going to be,” Oster said.

Werdel said officials are studying statistics to analyze the achievement gap. The Indian Education Advisory Council then will set goals and the strategies that will be used to address the problem, she said.

Members of the council have years of experience working in rural and urban areas and in schools administrated by the state, tribes and the federal government, Werdel said. They can collaborate to find ways to improve education for American Indian students, she said.

“It’s really easy to look at all the data. It’s really easy to write this really nice goal. But we have to come up with realistic, practical solutions that actually are going to achieve this growth we want,” Werdel said.

At the Indian Education Summit, officials talked a lot about incorporating Indian culture and language into education for Native American students.

Werdel said research shows Indian students perform better in school if they value their culture and know who they are. “We’ve got to allow our children to be proud of who they are.”

Werdel said she is pleased that she has received so much support from Oster and others in the Education Department.

“It’s an exciting time,” she said.