Following years of sustained efforts to improve the outcomes of its Native American population, the Pendleton School District recently received high marks from its American Indian students.
At the Pendleton School Board’s annual meeting on the Umatilla Indian Reservation Monday, Julie Smith, the district’s director of special programs, shared the results of a student survey conducted by the University of Oregon.
During spring 2016, the university surveyed 178 eighth, 10th and 12th-grade students and asked them questions about their feelings toward their teachers, schools and cultural identities.
Of the students interviewed, 16 identified as American Indian/Native Alaskan while an additional 13 students identified as American Indian/Native Alaskan and another ethnicity. A total of 14 percent of respondents were either full or partially American Indian and include members the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“Native students who participated in the survey felt overall positive about their school environment,” the study concludes. “Their average ratings of each survey domain were around the scale’s midpoint, meaning that tended to “somewhat agree” that the academic and instructional supports provided by their teachers were culturally responsive, that they were proud of and felt connected to their cultural identity, and that the school had good relationships with their families and communities.”
But some of the statistics provided by the survey showed that the district has more work to do.
One in four American Indian students felt that none of their teachers knew about their cultural backgrounds, and three of every four multi-ethnic Native American students said the same. Thirty percent of American Indian students felt that neither their education or their curriculum understood their culture. Thirty-eight percent said their teachers didn’t understand their culture. Around 10 percent of both groups felt they were harassed at school because of their culture.
“Analysis of individual items on the cultural identity subscale showed that students were proud of their language and their culture, but that class assignments did not always encourage their cultural identity formation,” the study states. “Finally, analysis of the individual items on the family and community relationships scale showed that the majority of students felt the school welcomed their family and community, but that teachers did not always reach out to their family members to invite them to the school.”
Smith said there was “some really strong, positive things that came to light” through the report. Smith said the university researchers interviewed teachers that students considered culturally responsive and used their answers to formulate a survey that will be given to other teachers.
Board member Dave Krumbein asked Smith how teachers were supposed to know about a student’s cultural identity. Smith responded that teachers should develop a culture of sharing with students
“Those are more culturally responsive classrooms, where you’re invited to bring your suitcase of cultural identity in class with you,” she said. “There are other places where you leave that outside at the door.”
The district has undertaken a number of initiatives over the past few years to improve academic outcomes for tribal students.
With the aid of state grants, the district developed and implemented a tribal curriculum for several grade levels and added signs in Umatilla and Nez Perce at Washington Elementary School.
The district also made a conscious effort to recruit more American Indian teachers, although its only resulted in two teachers so far. Oregon Teacher Pathways, an Eastern Oregon University pipeline program for aspiring teachers, has also struggled to attract CTUIR students at Pendleton High School.
But one of the district’s chief initiatives is funded through a grant from the state’s Tribal Attendance Pilot Program. The grant funds a “family advocate” position that focuses on boosting attendance in tribal students. As a part of the program, Washington has hosted monthly family nights to make tribal families feel more welcome at the school.
In its second year, Washington held its first family night of the school year on Tuesday. Families dined on pizza and cookies in the school cafeteria before children were ushered into a nearby den to play with boardgames and coloring sheets while the adults listened to a presentation from Cason’s Place, a grief support organization. The night concluded with award presentations for students with good attendance.
Sitting with his children, Brad Spencer was pretty familiar with Washington’s family nights. Spencer’s brother Brent was the family advocate for Washington last year and Brad frequently attended the inaugural events.
Brad said the family nights were a good way to motivate children to attend school and opened up lines of communication between parents and the school.
Sitting a few tables down, David and Cassandra Thompson were attending their first family night with their two children. Cassandra Thompson said she felt like the district could be doing more outreach, especially during November, which is National American Indian Heritage Month. Outside of Washington school, Thompson said there isn’t as much outreach.
Regardless of the feelings in the room, the crowd that turned out for Monday’s event filled most of Washington’s small cafeteria room. Stacey Jacobs, the current family advocate, said it was the best turnout yet for a family night.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.