Commissioner learns about White Earth education issues

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) Commissioner Alice Seagren met with the White Earth Tribal Council and regional school administrators Wednesday to discuss educational issues for White Earth students.

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) Commissioner Alice Seagren met with the White Earth Tribal Council and regional school administrators Wednesday to discuss educational issues for White Earth students.

The meeting marks the first time Seagren has met with the council and educators on the reservation.

"These are historic meetings. They have never happened before," said tribal council chairwoman Erma Vizenor.

Meeting participants addressed academic initiatives, creation of an American Indian youth facility, the White Earth Comprehensive Education Study and MDE staffing.

The commissioner also toured schools at Pine Point and White Earth.


White Earth Circle of Life School administrator Mitch Vogt briefed the group on the Reach for the Sky program.

Vogt said Circle of Life began Reach for the Sky in 1998 to improve math and science comprehension among high school students.

Reach for the Sky incorporates math and science principles into hands-on projects, including traditional Ojibwe activities.

In 2004, Reach for the Sky added curriculum in fourth through sixth grade classes.

With help from the University of Minnesota, Circle of Life secured funding from the National Science Foundation to continue the program through 2010.

Vogt said Reach for the Sky will expand to include children attending Pine Point School Elementary and Naytahwaush Charter School.

Seagren asked if Circle of Life has been able to sustain improved proficiency levels through the program.

Vogt said they have, but gains were not as substantial last year.


Vogt stressed the program makes a difference in students' opinions about math and science.

"Their attitude has changed," Vogt said.

Vizenor then shared with Seagren and educators the tribe's vision of a facility to deal with troubled youth.

She said the commissioner of the Department of Corrections visited White Earth in November 2006 to share data on youth corrections with the tribal council.

"The information was stark and appalling," said Vizenor.

The tribe learned American Indians, while 2 percent of the state population, make up half of the population in juvenile centers.

"It put me on a mission. It put me on a crusade," Vizenor said.

The tribe determined the need for a youth facility capable of handling juvenile problems in ways consistent with Ojibwe culture, Vizenor explained.


Opportunity knocked when the tribe learned about the closing of the Gilfillan Center in Bemidji.

"It's perfect for what we need," said Vizenor of the 40-acre facility.

Vizenor said the facility, if run by the reservation, could also accommodate youth from the Leech Lake and Red Lake tribes.

The tribe is working to secure funding to buy the $4 million property, and would appreciate any assistance the MDE could give, Vizenor said.

"I think it's long overdue. It's years and years overdue... but we need your help," she said.

Seagren praised the plan, citing her experience on the state legislature judicial committee taught her about the need for a diverse treatment focus among different offenders.

"You have a great idea," said Seagren. "If you can have a program that makes a difference in recidivism... it will be a national model."

Minnesota State University Moorhead associate professor Boyd Bradbury informed Seagren about a White Earth Reservation Comprehensive Education Study.


Bradbury said he and Red Lake superintendent Brent Gish developed the study to help eliminate the academic achievement gap on the reservation, including high dropout and truancy rates.

The study will make use of surveys and focus groups to determine sources of the achievement gap and recommend solutions.

"Sometimes test numbers give us the skeleton of the problem, but the flesh comes from focus groups," said Bradbury.

"For lack of a better term, it can be seen as a strategic plan," said Gish.

According to Gish, the comprehensive study may be the first of its kind in the nation. "I'm very optimistic about its potential," he said.

Seagren urged the researchers to share information at a conference for state American Indian educators scheduled for August 2008.

Bradbury said preliminary data should be available by August, but the final report will not be released until December 2009.

Later during the conference, Vizenor presented the commissioner with a resolution asking the MDE to transfer the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program back to the department from the Bureau of Higher Education.


Seagren said the MDE cut the position because of budget limitations.

"We are running on fumes," said Seagren. "We had no other option but to lay off the person... it does not mean we won't try to re-establish it in the future."

Before the meeting, Seagren toured the Pine Point School in Ponsford, Circle of Life School and the White Earth Early Childhood building.

At Pine Point, Seagren visited an Ojibwe language classroom and a new computer lab, obtained with funds from a library grant.

A Circle of Life student drum group performed for Seagren in honor of her visit.

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