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Finding Best Practices Among Charter Schools Serving Native Students

Results from the Nation’s Report card (NAEP) indicate that there is a widening achievement gap between Native American students and their non-Native American peers. Specifically, the report finds that American Indian and Alaska Native students, regardless of whether they attend traditional public schools or those under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, are lagging behind in reading and math.

In states where demographic enrollment data are available, there were 48 public charter schools in 12 states in the 2011-2012 academic year enrolling a majority of Native American and Alaska Native students. While the numbers are not large (less than one percent of all charter schools), these charter schools present alternative educational opportunities for students.

The National Indian Education Association (NIEA) released a new report conducted on its behalf by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education on the work of public charter schools serving Native communities. The goal of the report was to find the qualities and practices of charter schools that have a demonstrated track record of successfully educating Native students. Research has shown that cultural programming can help Native students improve their achievement. However, little is known about what charters serving Native students are doing in terms of developing best practices in teaching Native students.

The authors choose three charter schools specifically geared toward serving American Indian and Alaska Native students for further site visits and interviews. The schools—Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods in Klamath, Calif.; Pemayetv Emahakv in Okeechobee, Fla.; and Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School in Hayward, Wisc.—were selected based on their successes in improving student achievement on standardized tests, providing culturally-based education to their students, and creating  school climates that are respectful and reinforce Native traditions as well as instill self-pride. Among these schools, the authors found common traits including: extremely small, custom learning communities; strong, visionary leaders; political access and leverage in charter context; stability of tribal government; and alliances and relationships with the community.

One of the biggest challenges to replication the success of these schools, perhaps not surprisingly, is the human capital pipeline. While all charter schools struggle to find outstanding school leaders and teachers, schools that focus on Native culture face the additional hurdles of finding and developing teacher fluency in culture and language and tribe-specific context. Overcoming this challenge will impact the sustainability and success of charter schools serving majority Native American students.

The report concludes by recommending schools develop instructional delivery for Native students by:

  • Creating a forum for schools to share ideas and collaborate
  • Providing accessible research and information
  • Conducting more research into effective practices
  • Advocating for tribal control over charter law

For more resources on Native education, check out the National Charter School Resource Center eNewsletter. We encourage more studies like the NIEA report to shed more light on this critically understudied topic in the public charter school sector.