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Washington Elementary revamps signs to promote tribal language, improve attendance

Despite some early success with family nights, tribal language signs, the future of tribal attendance program remains uncertain
Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on June 8, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on June 8, 2017 8:23PM

Staff photo by E.J. Harris
All of the signage at Washington Elementary is now displayed in English, braille, Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris All of the signage at Washington Elementary is now displayed in English, braille, Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu.

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Nicholas Jennings, Richard Jennings and Perry Jennings place a paper template for the translations of Washington Elementary in both Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu on Tuesday in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Nicholas Jennings, Richard Jennings and Perry Jennings place a paper template for the translations of Washington Elementary in both Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu on Tuesday in Pendleton.

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Translations of Den 2 in both Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu adorn a wall in Washington Elementary School in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Translations of Den 2 in both Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu adorn a wall in Washington Elementary School in Pendleton.

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The latest sign of the Pendleton School District’s push to boost Native American education is quite literal.

Washington Elementary School has been adding Umatilla and Weyiiletpuu translations to internal signs throughout the school year, culminating in a Umatilla translation of the school’s name on the building’s front façade that was installed Tuesday. Weyiiletpuu is a Nez Perce dialect spoken by Cayuse people, whose traditional language is now extinct.

The signs and many of the district’s recent American Indian education initiatives have be paid for by state and federal grants. But with those grants expiring and not much local funding to back them up, the future of at least one of those programs is in doubt.

The new signs were funded through the Tribal Attendance Pilot Project grant, a state grant that provided up to $150,000 for initiatives to improve attendance for American Indian students. The district used its grant to focus on Washington, the Pendleton school with the highest share of Native American students.

In addition to purchasing the signs, the district hired a Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Education Department employee, Brent Spencer, as a family advocate.

Tasked with creating initiatives to boost attendance, Spencer began implementing attendance contests between classes, prizes for good attendance, and after-school family nights.

Spencer said American Indian attendance at Washington was 93 percent last year and they hoped to increase it to 95 percent by the end of this year, but those statistics barely budged.

Still, Spencer said the early impact of the program went beyond statistics. He said the school is building relationships with parents and students through its family nights and continual follow-up contact, even going as far as personally pick up kids for school when they let him know they can’t make it.

While the statistics haven’t caught up yet, there is one number school officials are noticing. Matt Yoshioka, Pendleton interim superintendent, noted that attendance at family nights grew from 17 students and parents at the first event to 40 at the final one.

While Spencer thinks it will take a few years before the program can make a dent in attendance rates, it may not be around that long.

The district didn’t include the family advocate position in its 2017-2018 budget and its set to expire with the grant at the end of June. Yoshioka said the pilot project grant is included in Gov. Kate Brown’s budget proposal, but that won’t be finalized until the Legislature votes on it.

In the meantime, Yoshioka said the district will focus on sustaining its current tribal education programs to address a persistent achievement gap between American Indian students and their peers.

A different state grant allowed the district to develop a tribal curriculum for students in kindergarten, fourth grade and sixth grade in 2015. Yoshioka said that curriculum could be further bolstered by Senate Bill 13, which would direct the Oregon Department of Education to develop curriculum relating to Native American experience in Oregon and to provide related professional development tools.

Although a Native American teacher recruitment grant only resulted in the hiring of one teacher, Yoshioka said Pendleton High School continues to maintain its Oregon Teacher Pathways program for aspiring teachers.

While the goal is to develop more local teachers affiliated with the tribes, Yoshioka said the district will face stiff competition from the tribes themselves, which offer many professional-level jobs to enrolled members with college degrees.

Yoshioka said the district is also looking into other investments that will have a longterm impact like book purchases, tribal drumming classes and an elementary lacrosse team.

If the pilot program grant is re-authorized, Yoshioka said there could be some changes in store.

Yoshioka said district officials recently attended a conference with other recipients of the tribal attendance grant, where they noticed that other district employed a part-time staff member who specialized in training teachers in culturally inclusive professional development in addition to a full-time position similar to the family advocate.

While taking note of other district’s ideas, Yoshioka noticed that Pendleton’s trilingual signs were an aspect unique to Pendleton.

Now that Washington’s signs are fully installed, Yoshioka said Mid Columbia Bus Co. has agreed to add tribal language signs on their buses that go on routes on the reservation. The new Washington façade will be officially unveiled at a ceremony on June 14 at 5 p.m.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.





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