July 2012 Newsletter: Charter Schools Offer Option For Aiding Native Education

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Charter Schools Offer Option for Aiding Native Education

Educators, researchers, and policymakers are examining the potential of charter schools as an option for improving the academic achievement of Native students. The 2011 National Indian Education Study, published in July 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), reported little progress overall and a widening gap in certain areas among Native students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Recent reports indicate that Native education charter schools and tapping into the strengths of Native language and culture show potential as means to bolster Native students' engagement in school and improve learning. This feature of the monthly newsletter of the National Charter School Resource Center focuses on recent developments with charter schools and Native education, and the views of educators and researchers, and provides resources about sources of support for Native education and links to further pursue the topic.

The vast majority of Native students nationwide attend public schools, according to the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). The Condition of Education 2012 report from the NCES reported that in 2010 there were 378,000 American Indian/Alaska Natives and 186,000 Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders enrolled in public schools, just over 1 percent of total public school enrollment.

John Tippeconnic, Professor and Director of American Indian studies at Arizona State University, has spent 40 years working on American Indian education issues, including time as a K-12 public school teacher and serving as Director of the Office of Indian Education at the Education Department and Education Director at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tippeconnic said the education of American Indians has "never been what it should be," a circumstance that has been exclaimed in many national reports. In an interview with the Resource Center, Tippeconnic said, "Many students are successful, but too many are not doing well."

Charter schools offer a new opportunity to realize the goal of the federal Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 that provided for tribal control of schools but fell short on the needed autonomy and flexibility, according to Tippeconnic. "Charter schools provide that opportunity for local communities, local tribes to focus on who they are, to make education relevant to the students," Tippeconnic said. "It's addressed rather than ignored, like we see in many public schools. It's just pushed out. There is no time for it."

Tippeconnic, who coauthored The Dropout/Graduation Crisis Among American Indian and Alaska Native Students: Failure to Respond Places the Future of Native Peoples at Risk, said research has shown school dropout rates of 50 percent in the states with the highest for American Indian populations. Tippeconnic said that what works to bring about success in school involves many components. Some gaming tribes have set rules of withholding casino revenue payments to youths until they graduate from high school. "It's motivating to some," Tippeconnic said. "Of course, it's not to others. I think it all depends upon the family and community and the value of education and how that's instilled in young people."

The role of charter schools in Native education was highlighted in a 2011 U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing titled "Expanding the Success of Native Language and Culture-Based Education." Education reform has been included in a federal outreach program to solicit the views of tribal communities on key issues and within the Education Department's Indian Education Initiative.

Native Charter Schools Are Part of an Intricate Education Landscape

Native education charter schools exist in a range of urban and rural settings, from tribal schools on reservations to schools that have been independently organized in cities. There are 566 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages, according to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In July 2012, the NIEA released a report it commissioned to look at the potential of charter schools to serve Native American students. For This Place, for These People: An Exploration of Best Practices Among Charter Schools Serving Native Students includes a review of research on the topic and case studies of three schools: Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods of Klamath, California; Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School of Haywood, Wisconsin; and Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School of Okeechobee, Florida.

"A plethora of studies suggest the potential effectiveness of culturally-responsive education," the study said of the research review, "however, there remains very little experimental evidence supporting" the approach. According to the study, challenges to experimental research include sample sizes, funding, and fidelity of implementation.

Dawn M. Mackety, NIEA Director of Research, Data, and Policy, said in an interview with the Resource Center that charter schools offer flexibility to test new models involving Native language immersion and culture-based education.

"In these charter settings, there is often a much greater ability to integrate Native language and culture throughout the school culture and curriculum," Mackety said. "So we want to understand how that's working."

Mackety said NIEA wants to identify high-performing charter schools serving Native students, develop a forum for exchanging information, and share best practices in all public schools serving Native students. "Our Native students move back and forth between these charter schools and [Bureau of Indian Education] schools and the public school system," Mackety said. "We also want to understand the risks and challenges of charters serving Native students so we can identify support resources and technical assistance that they need, and help leverage partners to help provide it."

NIEA is expanding its interest in the issue with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided NIEA a series of three, two-year grants of $250,000 that end in 2013. The grants have focused on supporting effective teaching of Native students, implementing Common Core State Standards in ways that are responsive to Native culture, and have also focused on college and career readiness, with a subfocus on charter schools. "Just being able to identify the schools is a challenge," Mackety said.

In 2010, there were 5,000 charter schools, according to the NCES Condition of Education 2012 report, though exactly how many of those schools are focused on Native education is not clear. University of New Mexico Emeritus Associate Professor of American Indian Studies Mary Belgarde unofficially estimates the number is 63. Belgarde has followed the development of charter schools focused on Native education as part of her longtime research into culture-based education programs that focus on tapping into the traditions of students' own background. Belgarde helped organize a national conference in 2011 devoted to Native education and charter schools that was held at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Belgarde is a board member of the Native American Alliance for Charter Schools. Belgarde, who served on the board of a charter school at the Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico, maintains a electronic mailing list, NativeCharterSchool-L@unm.edu, to keep people informed about developments. Belgarde also said the next conference is planned for April 2013. 

Martin Reinhardt, Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University, said that managing the administration of tribal charter schools can be challenging. The schools can be federally, tribally, and state funded, with the involvement of different regulations, policies, and cultures. "It allows opportunities because of increased funding, but it also creates a situation where it can be very complex and potentially overwhelming," Reinhardt said. "When you make a policy does it have to be approved by the tribe, the federal government, and the state? For an administrator to have to work in that environment, they would have to be pretty skilled or they would have to hit the ground running with knowledge about the intricacies of tribal law and government." For educators coming from the outside, adapting to differences in culture and bridging the divide of historic distrust between tribal communities, non-American-Indian teachers, and administrators can be difficult as well. 

"Even if you have a lot of resources you are bringing to bear, something as simple as not knowing what you are doing in the classroom in dealing with [American] Indian people and [American] Indian identity can undermine all of your efforts," Reinhardt said. "Identity permeates everything."

Reinhardt said that while white people historically have typically filled administrative and faculty positions in Indian schools, recent Education Department professional development grants are supporting more American Indian people who are able to fill such roles.

"If these schools are able to help us revitalize our Native languages and our communities, that's going to do tremendous things for us as a people," said Reinhardt, whose experience includes curriculum counseling for tribal charter schools and service on the university's charter schools council. General education and Native learning don't have to be mutually exclusive. "It doesn't have to be either or. The idea of assimilation in and of itself is not a bad thing, but forced assimilation in a hierarchical environment is a bad thing."

Northern Michigan University serves as the authorizer for two tribal charter schools, Bahweting Anishnabe and Nah Tah Wahsh.

Native Culture-Based Charter Schools Emerge on Hawai'i

In 2000, Ku Kahakalau opened a K-12 charter school in Waimea, Hawai'i to put in place a pedagogy called "Education with Aloha," an approach that strives to engage students with Native Hawaiian culture, language, history, and the local environment while taking advantage of the most current methods and academic rigor. Kanu o ka 'Aina, the charter school, was the first of what is now a group of more than a dozen similarly focused charter schools in the state.

Kahakalau told the Resource Center that she was spurred to push for a law allowing charter schools and then establish one because of her desire to connect with her own roots, decades of seeing Native Hawaiian students dwelling at the bottom of the list of indicators for academic achievement, and the inability of the public education system to engage so many students.

The schools "have shown tremendous progress with students that the [state] Department of Education has not been able to move forward," Kahakalau said.

Compassion plays a critical role for students in the school's culture, according to Kahakalau, who served as the school's director until 2010. "They have identified this as the primary change agent—the informal structure of the school that's based on caring and mutual respect," Kahakalau said. "Students have identified this as the primary reason why they enjoy coming to school and why they are learning."

Kanu o ka 'Aina received a six-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and prepared an extensive report (Accreditation Self-Study 2009) as part of the accreditation process that covers the school's approach and performance.

Testimony in May 2011 before the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs committee lent support to the culture-based approach. Shawn Malia Kana'iaupuni, Division Director, Public Education Support of the Kamehameha Schools in Hawai'i, testified that the approach aids students' socio-emotional well-being, which positively affects math and reading test scores. Students whose teachers used culture-based education reported higher Hawaiian cultural affiliation, civic engagement, and school motivation than did students of other teachers. The testimony was based on Hawaiian Cultural Influences in Education, a study drawing on interviews with 600 teachers, 2,969 students, and 2,264 parents at 62 participating schools, including traditional public schools, culture-based, and conventional charter schools, schools with Hawaiian-immersion programs, and the private Kamehameha Schools. Kamehameha Schools, supported by the estate of the last royal descendant of Hawai'i's Kamehameha the Great, have been seeking ways to improve performance of Native Hawaiian students and close the achievement gap with other groups of students indicated by Hawai'i State Assessment (HSA) data.

Data from Hawaiian-focused charter schools show graduation rates that are 10 percent higher than conventional state department of education schools, according to the testimony. Eighty percent of the schools met or exceeded proficiency in reading on the state assessment for 2009-2010. "While math continues to be an area of concern, of the schools that did not meet proficiency on last year's HSA in Math, 80 percent did make improvements in their scores, between 6 and 15 percent," according to the testimony.

Kahakalau had her own learning curve with the Hawaiian language. Kahakalau was exposed to the language in her youth by her Hawaiian grandfather, a native speaker, but her father, as was common for his generation, could not speak the language. In the wake of the annexation of Hawai'i by the United States in 1898, the official language became English. "It was like physically handicapping your child if you taught them Hawaiian," Kahakalau said. Her mother was German and the family followed her father's work as a jazz musician in Europe. "Very early, I realized the importance of identity and language," Kahakalau said, who in 1979 returned to Hawaii to stay.

"My first priority was to learn Hawaiian," she said. "How could I be Hawaiian if I didn't speak the language?" Kahakalau joined three other students at the University of Hawai'i that were focusing on the Hawaiian language. She stuck with the program, despite discouragement about the lack of job prospects. But desire among Native Hawaiians to learn the Hawaiian language and about the culture has grown, part of a trend that began in the 1970s. "Now it's a very different ball game," Kahakalau said. "My daughters are both native speakers again. They grew up bilingual. So we have been very fortunate to have made that transition."


Federal Charter Schools Program Opens $500,000 Collaboration Grant Competition

The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) on July 30, 2012 opened a $500,000 competition to encourage high-quality public charter schools to partner with non-charter public schools to "share and transfer best educational and operational practices." The application deadline for the Charter School Exemplary Collaboration Awards is August 29, 2012.

The CSP, part of the Education Department, expects to award three to five grants, ranging from $50,000 to $200,000, according to the agency's announcement. Additional awards may be made in 2013 from the list of unfunded 2012 applications.

"By promoting strong partnerships and supporting the dissemination of information about the activities carried out through these partnerships, these Collaboration Awards should facilitate the exchange of best practices between public charter schools, non-chartered public schools, and non-chartered LEAs; and help the (Department) identify and publicize successful collaborations," the announcement states. "The Collaboration Awards competition is designed to encourage public charter schools, non-chartered public schools, and non-chartered LEAs to share resources and responsibilities; build trust and teamwork; boost academic excellence; and provide students and their parents with a range of effective educational options."

National Charter-District Collaboration Conference Set for November

A conference that will highlight the best examples of cooperative practices between charter and traditional public schools is set for November 4–5, 2012 in Broomfield, Colorado, just outside Denver. Read more.

North Carolina Charter Council Turns Away Fort Bragg Application, New Board to Consider Options

A proposal for a charter school at Fort Bragg failed to gain approval from the North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Council and the leader of a new local board considering the project says organizers are going back to the drawing board. Read more.

Maine Commission Approves Three Charter Applications

The State Charter School Commission in Maine, which became the 41st state with a charter school law in September 2011, is now a third of the way through its 10-year allotment of charters with the approval of three school applications.

The commission in July 2012 approved Cornville Regional Charter School to open this fall and Baxter Academy of Technology and Science in Portland to open in Portland for 2013-2014 school year. In June 2012, the commission approved the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences to open this fall in Hinckley. The applications are posted on the commission website.

The law allows the commission to approve 10 charters statewide over 10 years. The law also allows school district boards to authorize charter schools. But, as of July 27, 2012, no district had shown interest in doing so, according to the section of the state education department's website where the information is to be posted.

A commission hearing on the application of Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science is set for September 2012. In all, the commission received six applications, including two for virtual schools, which were held in abeyance.

Meantime, the volunteer, seven-member commission appointed by the State Board of Education is seeking to replace one of its members who died in July.

Federal Jury Awards $75,000 to Charter School Starter Who Claimed Reprisals by District

A federal jury in Florida, in a July 24, 2012 verdict, awarded a longtime public school educator and charter school starter $75,000 for her claim that she faced reprisals from the school district after she publicly challenged district actions impacting operation of the charter school and her employment. Read more.

New Criteria in Place for Green Ribbon Schools Program

New criteria and application information are available for the Education Department's Green Ribbon Schools recognition program, and state education agencies are being encouraged to indicate, by August 2012, their intent to nominate schools. Only state education agencies can nominate schools.

The program recognizes schools that are "exemplary in reducing environmental impact and costs; improving the health and wellness of students and staff; and providing effective environmental and sustainability education, which incorporates STEM, civic skills, and green career pathways."

Seventy-eight schools, including nine charter schools, received Green Ribbon Schools recognition in April 2012 in the program's inaugural year.


October 22–25, 2012: The National Association of Charter School Authorizers will hold the 2012 NACSA Leadership Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.

November 4–5, 2012: Best Cooperative Practices Between Charter and Traditional Public Schools Conference in Broomfield, Colorado.


  • 2011 National Indian Education Study. The July 2012 report from the NCES covers a range of data on the overall performance of American Indian and Alaska Native students in Grades 4 and 8 in reading and mathematics in the National Assessment of Education Progress. The report also includes information from surveys about the extent of knowledge of Native students have about their culture and the extent to which members of the Native community interact with schools.
  • Office of Indian Education. This office of the U.S. Department of Education supports the efforts of local educational agencies, Indian tribes and organizations, postsecondary institutions, and other entities to meet the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives so that these students can achieve the same challenging state standards as all students.
  • U.S. Department of Education Grants. The Education Department has developed a variety of grants focused on aiding Native education. They include Indian Education: Demonstration Grants for Indian Children, a program designed to improve the education achievement by developing, testing, and demonstrating effective services and programs. Grants have included a $149,668 award for the Ojibwe Immersion Charter School project, which involves integration of Native language and culture throughout the classroom environment, and a similar project at the STAR Charter School near Flagstaff, Arizona. Others include Indian Education Professional Development Grants, which provide support for local education agencies that enroll a threshold number of eligible Indian children, certain schools funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and, under certain conditions, Indian tribes; Alaska Native Education Equity, a program to meet the unique education needs of Alaska Natives; Native Hawaiian Education, a program to develop innovative education programs to assist native Hawaiians; and Native American and Alaska Native Children in School Program, a program to develop high levels of academic attainment in English among English learners, promote parental and community participation in language instruction educational programs, and may support the teaching and studying of Native American languages, but must have, as a project objective, an increase in English language proficiency. The Education Department includes the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.
  • Administration for Native Americans. This program within the federal Department of Health and Human Services promotes self-sufficiency for Native Americans by providing discretionary grants for community-based projects, and training and technical assistance to eligible tribes and native organizations. A range of resources and research on the issues are provided and grants include those for preserving Native language. Grants have included a two-year award of a total of $227,580 for a partnership involving a local food production project developed by students at the Kua o Ka La Public Charter School in a rural part of Hawaii.
  • Improving Academic Performance Among Native American Students: A Review of the Research Literature, 2001. This literature review examines and categorizes an extensive archive of research-based information on educational approaches and programs associated with improving the academic performance of Native American students.
  • Native Education 101: Basic Facts About American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Education. This report from the NIEA provides an overview of Native education, including demographics, types of schools, policy and legislation, and a list of organizations focused on Native issues.
  • U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Hearing Highlighting Charter Schools and Culture-Based Education. The May 2011 hearing included testimony about research focused on performance results of culture-based education and testimony about charter schools.
  • The Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence. This center focuses on improving the education of students whose ability to reach their potential is challenged by language or cultural barriers, race, geographic location, or poverty. The center promotes research and provides educators with tools to help implement best practices in the classroom.