The East Grand Forks School Board has approved the addition of an American Indian engagement specialist and success coach.

The yet-to-be hired coach will be tasked with engaging with the East Grand Forks Public School District's 75 Indigenous students and their families, providing tutoring services and working with teachers to ensure standards are met. The new American Indian engagement specialist will join two other student success coaches in the district: EGFSD's longtime bilingual coordinator Deka Ali, and Alex Reed, who joined the district this summer.

The success coach positions are funded by Achievement and Integration dollars, which are distributed by the state Department of Education to help reduce achievement disparities among minority students. East Grand Forks received the funding because of its proximity to the Crookston School District, which was identified by the state as "racially isolated."

Suraya Driscoll, the East Grand Forks School District director of teaching and learning, said that locally, staff see a similar effect, though a needs assessment conducted in the district showed achievement gaps might be more strongly tied to poverty.

"Poverty, to be honest, was the overarching thing that came out of our needs assessment," Driscoll said. "Children and families who are experiencing poverty just really need some support, and we want to be that support for them."

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Maylynn Warne, president of the district's American Indian Parent Advisory Council, told the East Grand Forks School Board at its Monday meeting, Nov. 9, that minority students with more cultural opportunities and recognition have been shown to have better academic outcomes.

"Really, the only time that a lot of students, or anybody, hears about American Indians is really in the history books," Warne said. "There are plenty of opportunities to talk about the contributions that we've made to this society."

This is the first year the student success program has started in earnest. The district first received the funding two years ago, and Ali was appointed to be a student success coordinator last year to get the program off the ground.

This year, the East Grand Forks School District received about $220,000 for the program, some of which is funded with a local levy. The Indigenous engagement specialist success coach approved Monday night by the School Board will be paid $45,000, a salary which will mostly paid for by the funding, though district Superintendent Mike Kolness said he hopes the position will be self-funded down the road.

So far this year, the program has been a success. Reed said that with middle and high school students working from home every other day because of the pandemic, it has been tougher to forge connections with those students. The work, however, is no less important, he said.

Reed, who moved to East Grand Forks from Iowa, where he did similar work, spends his time talking with students. The goal is to identify students who might be struggling in school.

When necessary, his job entails staging "interventions" for students and their families, a process that can include anything from providing additional homework help to addressing substance use.

"It's subjective," he said. "For some students, just being in the building is where we start. Like, your attendance hasn't looked so good, so this is where we're going to start. If things outside of the school building are not going well, then those are the issues we need to address first, and then that next piece will come. If things aren't going well at home or outside of the school building, then it's not really going to matter what interventions we try to put in place within the school."

But mostly, he said, he hopes to act as a role model, an advocate and a friendly face to East Grand Forks students.

"As the adults in the building, the ones who are supposed to be professionals, we're experiencing a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety, and I can speak to that personally," he said. "So I can only imagine how the students are handling that."