‘We need to look systemically:’ bridging Native American student achievement gaps

As an American Indian, a mother and a State Department of Education official, Johanna Jones hates talking about deficit models in education.

Native American students can compete in any education setting, and Jones sees plenty of examples and success stories. But at the same time, if the state is ever going to address achievement gaps, people need to understand that they exist.

“Sometimes you do have to show that deficit model,” said Jones, the head of the SDE’s Indian education program.

There is an abundance of troubling numbers: 

  • Idaho Native American students lagged well behind their peers on the SAT — Idaho’s college placement exam of choice, offered to high school juniors at state expense.
  • Only 37 percent of Native American high school graduates went on to college in 2017, compared to 46 percent of white students. And the postsecondary completion gap is far wider — a whopping 27 percentage points.
  • Idaho’s latest data drop again illustrated wide gaps from kindergarten through third grade. This fall, only 30 percent of Native American and Alaskan Native students scored at grade level on Idaho’s new reading test. By contrast, 57 percent of white students scored at grade level. The Idaho Reading Indicator scores are a particular concern to many educators, including Jones. If students lag behind in reading by the end of third grade, they are liable to struggle through the rest of their school years.

In two Eastern Idaho schools serving the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, the fall reading scores were even lower. At Fort Hall Elementary School, operated by the Blackfoot School District, only 22 percent of all students read at grade level. At Chief Taghee Elementary School, a charter school that teaches the Shoshoni language through an immersion program, only 17 percent of students hit grade level. Chief Taghee Administrator Joel Weaver attributed the low fall scores to the immersion program, since students spend about three-fourths of their day learning in Shoshoni.

Weaver also sees the need to instill a college- and career-ready mindset, using test scores to identify student potential. The job, he said, is to help students “see their potential through us.”

Weaver recalled a conversation he had with one student who scored well on the IRI — but aspired only to work as a cashier at the convenience store where a relative works. “’You should not be clerking at the Merc,’” Weaver said, as he encouraged his student to aim for a high-paying job at the Idaho National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research site northwest of Fort Hall.

However, some numbers show promise.

In 2017, 39 percent of Native American students who applied for an Idaho Opportunity Scholarship qualified for a share of the money. By contrast, only 26 percent of white applicants qualified for one of the state’s need-based scholarships. The trouble is, very few Native American students apply in the first place, a symptom of academic struggles in the early grades, said Tracie Bent, the State Board of Education’s chief planning and policy officer.

Meanwhile, 212 Native Americans took courses through Idaho’s advanced opportunities program, which allows junior and senior high school students to earn college credits at taxpayer expense. Native American students still aren’t signing up in proportion to their share of overall enrollment, but the raw numbers are trending upward. In 2016-17, Jones said, only 189 Native American students took advantage of the program.

Another bright spot is Shoshone-Bannock Junior-Senior High School — a federal Bureau of Indian Education school serving Fort Hall.

Taking advantage of an Idaho State University program that encourages high school students to take advanced opportunities courses on campus, nine Sho-Ban students boarded a minivan every day in the spring to attend classes at ISU. All nine students passed their classes with a grade of C-plus or better, said Kandi Turley-Ames, the dean of ISU’s College of Arts and Letters.

Since then, three of the nine students moved on to college, while three more will take additional dual-credit classes in 2018-19, said Matt Wilson, the counselor at Sho-Ban. Two moved to Wyoming, but are positioned to continue their education, he said. The ninth student is now a primary caregiver for young children.

The Sho-Ban student enrollment does not count toward the state’s numbers, since the school operates as a sovereign entity. Still, Jones is encouraged by what she sees happening — from ISU’s efforts to reach out to the Native American students to an anonymous donation covering the cost of textbooks. “It really has become a communitywide effort,” she said.

While the state can ramp up scholarships and dual-credit programs to make college more affordable, students still have to make the personal transition to campus life. And that can be difficult, particularly for students experiencing a culture shock.

For Wetalu Rodriguez, the move was particularly difficult.

She left Lapwai — a town of about 1,200, on north-central Idaho’s Nez Perce Indian Reservation — for Seattle and the University of Washington.

She chose to withdraw from UW’s unfamiliar campus culture — she was “too scared to be involved,” she told students and teachers at an SDE Indian education summit this summer — and eventually flunked out. She flunked out of college a second time, had a daughter and took a five-year break from college.

Wetalu Rodriguez

She returned to school, and closer to home, attending Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. She is more involved now. She is president of LCSC’s Native American club, and would rather spend time with fellow Native American students.

“It’s really just because we’re comfortable,” she said. “They get my jokes. They get my tone.”

But now, Rodriguez finds herself struggling to get students involved. Out of 100 or so Native American students at LCSC, only a half a dozen or so are active club members.

Rodriguez took a circuitous route through college, but she is now a senior, majoring in psychology.

Jones believes there are jobs waiting for Native Americans who complete a postsecondary education, and close to home, on Indian reservations. One key is making sure students see connections — between a biology class, for example, and a potential job at a tribal fishery.

And while Jones doesn’t like talking about deficit models, some deficits are impossible to overlook. Too many teachers who work in public schools located in or near Idaho’s reservations are inexperienced, or commuting to their schools.

“We need to look systemically,” she said.

This series, at a glance

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