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Naytahwaush Charter School celebrates academic jump

WHITE EARTH, Minn. -- In a small, off-the-beaten path White Earth Reservation school, soft echoes of Ojibwe can be heard floating through the hallways, mixing with the muffled teachings of math and children reading.

Teacher Emily Justin and 3rd grader Precious Hoagland
Teacher Emily Justin and 3rd grader Precious Hoagland work on reading - a subject that jumped roughly 15 percent in proficiency in only one school year. (Photo by Paula Quam)

WHITE EARTH, Minn. -- In a small, off-the-beaten path White Earth Reservation school, soft echoes of Ojibwe can be heard floating through the hallways, mixing with the muffled teachings of math and children reading.

Although rich in Native American culture, the K-6 Naytahwaush Community Charter School hasn't exactly been known for its academic excellence. In fact, it's historically sat toward the bottom of the list for that sort of thing -- second to the last among the long list of Minnesota schools.

The student makeup is 100 percent Native American, with nearly all of them qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, meaning poverty is a way of life there.

A year and a half ago, the state of Minnesota deemed Naytahwaush a "priority school," or a school in serious need of improvement.

It isn't exactly a designation desired by a community, but for Naytahwaush, it marked a new beginning.


That's because sometime between then and now, the little charter school of only 120 students has gone from its usual place at the bottom of academic performance to a place of celebration.

A 'Celebration School'

Right before holiday break, school officials at the Naytahwaush Community Charter School got the news they had been waiting for -- the Minnesota Department of Education had named it a "Celebration School." It was the only school on the White Earth Indian Reservation to receive that designation, which puts it in the top half of Title 1 schools in Minnesota.

And what's so remarkable about the achievement is that it was reached in only one school year.

"Our MMR (Multiple Measurements Rating) went from 4 percent to 56 percent," said Terri Anderson, director of the school.

Anderson said that rating is based on the Minnesota assessments that all students in the state take in core subjects such as math, reading and science.

Less than a quarter of the young Native American students at Naytahwaush were considered proficient before the turnaround. Now, that's up by around 15 percent in only one year. There's still an obvious need for continued improvement, but the momentum at Naytahwaush seems to be palpable.

The turnaround


When Naytahwaush received its "turnaround" designation, it applied for and received a School Improvement Grant of $325,000.

School administrators quickly put that to use.

They hired a full-time continuous improvement specialist who also is a teaching coach, and added an assessment coordinator and a student support position to help with behavioral issues.

Over the past year, research-based assessments have been the name of the game every single day -- not just for students, but teachers.

"The number one factor in whether a student does well academically is the teacher in the classroom," said Anderson, who added that teachers at Naytahwaush were well-intentioned and dedicated, but missing the mark.

The start of the turnaround would begin with teachers receiving training from professionals who continue to come in and assess them on a weekly basis as they try out their new curriculum and techniques.

"They are also spending an hour and a half every week after school in their professional learning community where they get together, assess the performance of the students who need intervention, and then figure out ways to improve it," Anderson said.

She said that now when students start to slip behind, there is an instant intervention where they receive additional, individual support.


Fifth-grader Kaleb Neadeau said that last year he had a tough time with reading.

"I didn't really understand what I was reading. I always had to read things more than once," he said. But with his teacher implementing a new literacy program with a proven track record and some instructional intervention, Kaleb said he now loves to read.

"I liked it before, but it was hard. Now, I read all the time -- at home, too," he said, excited to talk about the plot of the latest book he's read.

Kaleb's excitement isn't unique at Naytahwaush these days. Anderson said the fast results from some much-needed changes have staff, students and the entire community excited.

She said the school staff is now, more than ever, building a relationship with parents in the community with home visits and new ways for parents to get involved in their children's education.

"It's made everybody feel really good that the students are really getting prepared for their future," Anderson said, adding that there is a lot more talk among students of down-the-road goals such as college and good jobs.

Now with posters, banners and T-shirts around the school that read "Celebration School," educators and students seem to have gotten the biggest lesson in overcoming adversity. What was once a failing school now feels more like a hidden jewel of opportunity on the White Earth Reservation.

"Hope is a great word, and what has happened here has given people lots of hope," Anderson said. "And it's not just hope, it is results. It can be done."

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