The Pendleton School District has started a number of initiatives to help close the achievement gap between American Indian students and their peers, but administrators will have to wait to see if data will show progress.

At the Pendleton School Board’s annual meeting on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the district delivered a report detailing the academic performance of its 463 American Indian students, about 15 percent of the district’s total student population.

The results were not pretty.

American Indian students, at 90 percent, were 4 percentage points below the overall attendance rate for the district. The chronic absentee rate was even worse: 37 percent of Native American students missed more than 16 days of school, while the overall rate was 20 percent.

Scores on the Smarter Balanced assessment also showed a stark disparity between the overall percentage that met the standards and the American Indian rate. At 62.6 percent, the overall amount of seventh graders that passed the English language arts was one of the standouts for the district. Comparatively, Native American students passed at a 25 percent clip.

Superintendent Jon Peterson said that if the district wanted to boost assessment scores, they need to address absenteeism.

Assistant Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the district is employing multiple methods to try to boost Native attendance rates, including working with families at an individual level.

Sally Kosey, the Indian education coordinator for Washington Elementary School, said a group of six or seven kids are contributing to the high chronic absentee rate for Indian students.

To help combat absenteeism, Kosey said she has worked with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to buy alarm clocks for students because many say their parents refuse to wake up to take them to school.

Kosey said the routes used by the Mid Columbia Bus Co. are also an issue for Native students that live on the reservation, with many students the first to be picked up and the last to be dropped off.

With the additional transportation time, Kosey said some students get turned off to education by the time they hit middle school.

Mooney and Peterson offered several explanations for the long bus rides, including the Midco bus barn’s location on the reservation, the reservation’s distant proximity to Pendleton’s core and the lack of funding for additional bus routes.

Despite these explanations, Peterson said it might be time to revisit bus routes.

While discussing the issues facing Indian students in the Pendleton School District, there was also a fair amount of time spent celebrating them and the new programs set up to help them.

In addition to American Indian students from across the district that were recognized for their academic achievements, the district also honored volunteer instructors that were working at the Pendleton Early Learning Center to teach kindergartners tribal languages.

Nixyaawii Community School was also given a share of the spotlight, and Principal Ryan Heinrich used his time to showcase two new programs offered at the charter school this year.

Heinrich said Nixyaawii created its first career technical education class, partnering with the CTUIR building department to teach students about building maintenance.

Nixyaawii counselor Michelle Van Pelt is also leading an ASPIRE class to get students ready for college.

Van Pelt said she has been taking students to the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which in addition to allowing students to be creative, also lends itself well to building a college résumé.

Van Pelt said a student used the prints he made at Crow’s Shadow to help gain admittance to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

Lloyd Commander, the CTUIR youth services and recreation program manager, also lauded the district for its efforts to recruit more Indian teachers.

“It’s a big deal when a Native kid walks in and the teacher looks just like them,” he said.

Peterson said he feels like the district is “on the verge” of making progress in American Indian education and is excited to watch from the sidelines when he retires at the end of the year.

Also on the agenda was a new lease with the Round-Up Association for use of the grounds for athletic events, which the board tabled until February.

Michelle Jones, director of business services, said the district’s legal counsel advised against approving a Pendleton Round-Up proposal that would require the district to appeal the grounds’ property taxes to the Umatilla County Board of Property Tax Appeals on the Round-Up’s behalf.

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

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