ESSA Listening Sessions, round 1

Today, I had the privilege of spending several hours learning from tribal leaders at the Department of Education’s tribal consultation in Orlando. The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Office of Indian Education, and the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education called the listening session to share information about the Every Student Succeeds Act and to hear community members’ thoughts on next steps for providing guidance for those impacted by the law. This was a heavy meeting at times, particularly as we discussed the urgency of revitalizing our Native languages and the waves of youth suicides sweeping Indian Country. It was a good meeting, and I wanted to share some major themes from the day with you:

Funding Needs

  1. Only 4% of education funding for public schools comes from the federal government; the rest comes from state and local funds. Many states are currently experiencing dire budgetary shortfalls, often leaving educational resources lacking. Several tribal leaders asserted that tribes should be able to enter into compacts with states to run their own education systems, much in the way that some tribes do for gaming or healthcare. They cited tribes running Head Start programs and tribal charter schools as evidence that this is a viable alternative to the present system.
  2. It almost goes without saying that tribes’ education funding is insufficient to cover all educational needs. Participants explained that when funding is available, it often comes in grants with relatively short implementation periods. If funding were more long-term, tribes might be able to craft stronger long-term strategic plans for their education systems. One tribal member explained that half of his tribe’s annual budget comes from grants, and that the management of those ~150 grants takes up substantial labor. The tribal member suggested consolidating smaller funds into one large grant, maximizing fund availability and freeing up tribal employees to work on other important initiatives.

Curriculum Priorities

  1. Attendees stressed that language and culture should be more present in public schools serving Native youth. The ESSA requires that states consult with tribes regarding their use of Title I, Title II, and Title III funds. It also requires that local educational authorities (like school districts) consult with local tribes if 50% of students in their their district are Native or if they qualify for over $40,000 in Title VII (soon-to-be Title VI) funds. Importantly, one participant noted that this may not actually result in greater consultations if students who list “two or more races” on their registration do not get identified as Native by the district.
  2. As ESSA focuses on states having college- and career-ready standards, participants wanted to make sure there is adequate support for youth whose aspirations or life circumstances require trade schools, GEDs, and military service instead of a four-year institution. They emphasized the importance of career in “college- and career-ready.”

Student Needs

  1. Many participants told personal stories about teachers or administrators who didn’t expect them to go to college and, in some cases, told students they would end up in prison. One participant from Alaska shared that the rates of suspensions and expulsions almost exactly match the rates of adult male incarceration — another example of the school-to-prison pipeline in full effect.
  2. Some attendees felt that Native students are over- or under-identified for Special Education: whereas some participants were concerned about school districts identifying Native students as SpEd in order to get additional per pupil funding, others were concerned that teachers and administrators may misinterpret cultural differences as learning disabilities.
  3. Historical trauma affects our students’ abilities to learn and grow. Districts should be aware of the impact of historical trauma on students and set up supports to help them succeed.
  4. Lastly (and most importantly), suicides are rampant in Indian Country. Several participants expressed feeling that schools that aren’t culturally responsive may exacerbate the problem. They asserted that a return to tribal languages and ceremonies can help counteract the issues contributing to youth suicides. Throughout the day, many commented on the need for more culturally responsive environments, teachers, counselors, standards, curriculum, and assessments for Native youth. Districts should invite tribes to actively partner in developing culturally responsive classrooms since they know their communities, their cultures, their histories, and their kids best.

In the next few weeks, the Department of Education will hold additional listening sessions in Sisseton, Tulsa, and Spokane. They also have set up as an email address to answer any ESSA-related questions or concerns. Other documents relevant to ESSA can be found on the Department of Education’s page or on the NIEA’s page. 

Feel free to message me @meredithlmccoy on Twitter if you have any thoughts or questions about what I’ve written here. Let me know if this resonated with you!



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