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Annual report by Native American parents says the Duluth school district isn't doing enough to educate students

DULUTH, Minn. -- An annual report by Native American parents says the Duluth school district isn't doing enough to educate Native American students, but those parents say they are seeing some progress.

DULUTH, Minn. -- An annual report by Native American parents says the Duluth school district isn't doing enough to educate Native American students, but those parents say they are seeing some progress.

The state-mandated parent advisory committee presented its findings to the School Board last week with a resolution of "non-concurrence," which the district has a history of receiving from the committee. It's an "archaic" term from state statute, but the designation isn't seen as punitive, said Dennis Olson, director of Indian Education for the Minnesota Department of Education.

"It's really a cool and unique opportunity that a committee gets to develop recommendations to better serve American Indian students," he said, and is a common designation across the state with districts that have large enough Native American student populations to qualify for such a group.

The parent group works with the Duluth school district's Indian Education coordinator, Edye Howes. In putting together its report it decides on aims, goals, reasons for non-concurrence, progress and recommendations -- a process, Olson said, that goes beyond what is required by law.

The district in two out of more than a dozen areas failed to meet expectations, including not-inclusive curriculum and a lack of training for staff around "diverse perspectives" and culture.


The addition of the Ojibwe immersion program at Lowell Elementary and the hiring of Native American teachers were noted as improvements.

"We've got some really good people in administration right now," said Dani Dunphy, a member of the parent committee.

Those people, including Howes and Superintendent Bill Gronseth, work to include Native American voices in conversations about education, she said.

"Historically, there hasn't been a great working relationship between the Indian Education department and the school district itself," Dunphy said. "It was more like the Indian Education department was responsible for educating American Indian students and the school district didn't really want to be bothered with it."

And still, some feel that mindset continues, she said, noting the district needs to continue to include the voices of parents of color in decisions about their children's education, especially while the Native American graduation rate -- historically low -- was just 32 percent in 2015.

Gronseth said he's been "purposeful" about "breaking down silos" in many of the district's support areas, including American Indian education, and including those employees in general curriculum discussions, for example.

"Clearly we have a long way to go when we look at graduation rates and the achievement gap," he said, for Native American students.

The relatively new immersion program at Lowell for kids in kindergarten through second grade is one way to eventually improve that rate, Howes said during the board meeting last week. Even if the program doesn't extend into higher grades, she said, the time students do spend in the program keeps them "rooted in education" because of how it works.


Research shows immersion programs build problem-solving skills, offer cognitive benefits and connect kids to their cultures. Even students not in the program benefit by it being there, because its presence makes them more familiar with other cultures, leading to understanding, Duluth educators have said.

Olson said Duluth's use of an immersion program as one way to help raise graduation rates is unique "and has a lot of people around the state excited. It looks like they are putting some pieces in place to address (their rate)."

Olson, who is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, noted that the report is a model for others to follow.

"It's true meaningful consultation," Olson said, and shows those involved are taking the process seriously, "instead of bringing a stack of paperwork for the parents' signature."

Howes said professional development and training for teachers has been increasing.

But it's still not enough, Dunphy said, noting distrust in school systems -- lingering from federal boarding schools meant to assimilate Native Americans into white culture, forcing language loss -- remains.

It's up to the district to reach out to people of color, she said, to repair relationships. Parents and kids need to feel welcomed and respected by both staff and other students, and if parents feel distrust and discomfort going to their child's school, "how do we expect our kids to go there and feel comfortable?" she said.

The report to the state is a starting point for much larger issues, Dunphy said.


"Even if they did absolutely everything we requested them to do, it's not going to solve the problem," she said.

There is no consequence for the designation, Olson said, but it allows the district to ask for more help from the state in terms of professional development and other training needs.

About 7 percent of the Duluth school district's enrollment is Native American. The School Board will vote on acceptance of the committee's report Tuesday.

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