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Grants pave way for Native American teachers

Native American students face a dropout rate of over 12 percent—more than double that of their white peers and higher than that for black and Asian students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

High teacher turnover rates and few native teachers in the classroom are part of the problem, says David Thomas, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson. The Indian Education Professional Development Grant seeks to change that by providing Native Americans a chance to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree and become teachers or administrators.

From 2007 through 2012, the Department of Education and Office of Indian Education awarded 45 grants, and 373 people have completed their four-year education under the program. Graduates pay back the grant by teaching in a reservation school or public school with a large American Indian population.

There are 183 schools on 64 reservations nationwide, according to the Bureau of Indian Education. “Often we find native paraprofessionals serving in classrooms with non-native teachers,” Thomas says. Native teachers can act as role models for students, he adds.

Marlin Spoonhunter, president of the two-time grant recipient Wind River Tribal College in Wyoming, believes more native teachers are needed to keep native students in school. “They understand our children more—they live here, grew up here, and went to school here, too. They can implement our culture, language, and history into the learning.”

Wind River Tribal College is one of 45 colleges to receive the grant, and two groups of 12 students are now going through the program there. The first cohort will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education in December. The college partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to provide the education courses, both online and on the Wind River campus. Students, who must have an associate’s degree, spend about 2 ½ years in the program.

With the grant, the teachers-in-training don’t have to leave the reservation or their jobs to seek a bachelor’s degree, Spoonhunter says. The program also provides tuition, books, and monthly living expenses and child-care costs.

Tribal colleges and other institutions of higher education can apply for the grant; so can individual tribes, Indian organizations and local education agencies that partner with a degree-granting entity. The grant provides roughly $10 million total per year for these institutions.