UW News

July 13, 2016

New UW program aims to foster better education for Native learners

News and Information

Geri Flett, left, and Launa Phillips, tribal members and teachers in the Wellpinit School District, meet with Warren Seyler, a curriculum consultant for the district.

Geri Flett, left, and Launa Phillips, tribal members and teachers in the Wellpinit School District, meet with Warren Seyler, a curriculum consultant for the district.Jennifer LeBret-White

At meetings with Native American community leaders, educators in the University of Washington’s College of Education repeatedly heard the same question — what can be done to improve educational outcomes among Native learners?

Those discussions led to the creation of the UW’s new two-year Native Education Certificate program, which launches in August. The 10-unit curriculum mixes online learning with hands-on projects in participants’ communities, with the goal of providing more meaningful and culturally relevant education for Native students.

“There is a huge under-representation of Native teachers in the state and across the country,” said program manager Dawn Hardison-Stevens, who is Cree, Ojibwe and Cowlitz, and serves on the Steilacoom Tribal Council.

“A lot of teachers at schools on or next to reservations are non-Native. The program will help them develop a knowledge base and work with tribal communities to include cultural content in their curriculum.”

The program starts with a three-day orientation, followed by online courses on topics including tribal sovereignty and Native child development. The curriculum emphasizes Native ways of learning that honor people’s connection with their physical environment. And it requires participants to go out into their communities and interact with Elders and families.

“One of the things that is really vital to becoming better educators to Native children is understanding Native communities,” said Megan Bang, an associate professor of education who is leading the program with associate professor Elizabeth West.

“Some teachers are great teachers, but if you ask them if they’ve spent time in the community and really understand Native children and culture, they’ll say no,” said Bang, who is Ojibwe.

That disconnect has been a concern among parents in the Wellpinit School District, a public K-12 system located on the Spokane Indian Reservation that serves about 400 mostly Native children, but whose teachers are primarily white.

“One of the main concerns that has been brought up is, what qualifications do teachers in the Wellpinit School District have to teach our kids?” said Polo Hernandez, who was hired by the district last year to oversee a federal grant aimed at improving Native American education.

A fifth grade class at Wellpinit Elementary School, on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

A fifth grade class at Wellpinit Elementary School, on the Spokane Indian Reservation.Jennifer LeBret-White

Hernandez started reaching out to universities to ask if they offered instruction in indigenous practices, and was referred to Bang. The Wellpinit School District soon signed up to be the first cohort enrolled in the new UW program; more than 25 people are participating, and UW staff will lead the three-day kickoff in August on the Spokane reservation. A second cohort from various tribes and school districts will start the program in August at the UW’s wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House on the Seattle campus.

Kim Ewing, principal of Wellpinit’s elementary school, hopes the program will teach educators ways to better connect Native students with their heritage.

“What’s unique out here is there’s an opportunity, through our schools, to help kids really know and understand and be a part of the place that they’re from,” she said. “I would like to understand how to make that happen a little more.”

The initiative also seeks to redress the lingering impacts of boarding schools, established in the United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries in an effort to assimilate Native children into mainstream American society. The schools became notorious for physical and sexual abuse, and created lasting trauma in Native communities.

“Our community’s history with education is not just that there’s an achievement gap right now,” Bang said. “There’s a long history that is still at play, and sometimes more at play than people realize.

“Figuring out ways for schools to contribute to the vibrancy of tribal communities is ultimately, in my mind, partly what we’re going after, as opposed to education being one of the things that historically has been damaging.”

The program was developed in close consultation with an advisory board of Elders, tribal leaders and community members. It is open not just to teachers, Bang said, but to anyone who works with Native children, from school administrators to informal educators.

West, who is affiliated with the Yurok Tribe, hopes the program could ultimately spur a new generation of Native teachers.

“Presently, you don’t go into the community and hear kids say, ‘I want to be a teacher when I grow up,’” she said. “We really want to change that narrative.”