Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools aren’t meeting their state obligations for educating and supporting the district’s 200 or so Native American students, several Native American families told the School Board this fall.
But district officials said they’ve made progress, especially in the last few months.
The Prior Lake-Savage American Indian Parent Advisory Committee in a letter to the board in September said members were concerned with the achievement gap between Native American students and their peers, discrimination and bullying of students and a lack of culturally responsive teaching practices, among other issues.
The committee asked the district for several changes, including updated classroom materials, a mandatory training session on protecting the cultural identity of Native American students and regular time for the committee to go before the board.
Sarah Wheelock, the committee chair and a tribal member of the Meskwaki Nation in Iowa, said parents want the district to foster a supportive learning community.
“If our students are facing discrimination and microaggressions and maybe some of the more subtle prejudices that teachers and other students have, then it makes it very hard for them to be successful in that environment,” Wheelock said.
Dr. Kevin Schuttinger, director of teaching and learning for the district, said many of the committee’s concerns have been addressed through the hiring of a new American Indian education coordinator, Corinna Lyons, in August.
“We’re seeing, really from day one really a markedly different level of support for our students for our teachers in the program, just a really different level of leadership, to Corinna’s credit,” Schuttinger said.
Lyons is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in north Minnesota. With a professional background in mental health and Native cultural affairs, she said she got right to work reaching out to families and students who might have felt left behind by the district.
“Maybe the stuff wasn’t getting done or the resources weren’t available,” Lyons said. “But I’m making those resources available now.”
School districts must have a Native American parent committee and cultural liaison if more than 20 Native American students attend their schools under state law. The state has directed districts to create an Indian Education Program Plan with the parent committee.
The Prior Lake committee was created in 2016 and has never given the district a vote of concurrence, meaning the committee never endorsed the district’s education programs for Native American students and engagement with their families.
The district is one of only 11 districts that received a non-concurrence vote for the 2018-2019 year; 129 districts received a vote of concurrence from their committees, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Lyons said her work requires her to be a master communicator with teachers, students and district officials.
She’s called in to support students after disciplinary actions, to review the district’s current textbooks and recommend more historically accurate alternatives, and to help students foster a connection with their community through field trips.
In October, more than 70 district teachers attended Lyons’ informational session on Native American cultural awareness. She said she talked about traditional indigenous values and regional Dakota and Ojibwe history and broke down some basic terminology.
In the district’s formal response to the community, they said similar professional development will be added to help staff meet the Minnesota Department of Education’s teacher re-licensing requirements.
“I do think that hiring Ms. Lyons was a very significant step, and we felt heard that some of our needs weren’t being met. I think that that’s a big piece of the puzzle. It’s not the whole puzzle,” Wheelock said. “We’re looking forward to trying to work with everyone in a very collaborative manner.”
Wheelock called the district’s previous program anemic. While she felt like Lyons was helping to create a more supportive and informed environment for students and staff, she said other issues related to academic achievement would take more time to solve.
For the last four years, the percentage of Native American students in the district meeting or exceeding state standards has hovered around 40% in math and 50% in reading, according to state data.
By comparison, the percentage of white students in the district meeting or exceeding state standards has hovered around 80% in math and 74% in reading.
“I prefer to look at it as a multi-year set of steps,” Wheelock said.