Labor fights chronic absenteeism of American Indians

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Teams of Twin Cities educators journeyed to Washington, D.C., this month to tell a national audience at the 2016 Every Student, Every Day National Conference how AFT affiliates of Education Minnesota have forged strong partnerships with their school systems to improve outcomes for American Indian students, particularly when it comes to absenteeism and graduation.

Education Minnesota presentersAnna Ross and Alicia Zetah of Minneapolis, together with Susan Bobolink and Rebecca Wade of St. Paul, detailed how the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers were committed partners in fighting chronic absenteeism among American Indian students—a deeply rooted problem in the subgroup that touches on issues such as social isolation, student mobility, lack of historical awareness and a legacy of structural racism. (Pictured from left to right are Ross, Zetah, Bobolink and Wade.)

Many problems, including family distrust of educational institutions, stretch back decades to "boarding school" abuses that American Indian students and families suffered. Compounding the dilemma today, the Minnesota teams said, are the sheer numbers; in Minnesota, American Indian students constitute just 2.4 percent of the population yet they have the state's highest absenteeism and lowest graduation rates.

The challenge is daunting but not insurmountable, Zetah told the workshop audience. What's happening in the Twin Cities shows that "educators, with structured support, can get at marginalization, ignorance and racism" that underlie the problem. The benefits of the work are strong relationships between organizations, an established infrastructure and diligent application of evidence-based practices.

St. Paul's Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, for example, is a contractually embedded collaboration that is making a difference in chronic absenteeism among American Indian students. It is jointly governed by the union, the district and community members, and it has created stronger home-school partnerships through thousands of visits that have boosted parent involvement, reduced disciplinary problems, and improved both attendance and achievement.

In Minneapolis, a first-in-the-nation memorandum of agreement between Minneapolis Public Schools, the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors and its member organizations is providing the foundation for deep stakeholder engagement. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is among the community partners that work to support culturally relevant professional development, afterschool programs, family involvement, and community messaging about the importance of attendance.

Universal early childhood education also factors heavily into the strategy. MPS offers early childhood and family education to all families with children under age 5, and included in this effort are culturally specific courses for parents. One course, "Parents of Tradition," seeks to prepare American Indian families to teach the Ojibwa and Dakota languages, to identify other appropriate supports for families, and to prepare children for school by offering adult learning on child development, school readiness, sibling relationships and behavior.

Supports and interventions in both systems follow a tiered model, appropriate to the severity of individual problems. Among the tools in place are one-to-one mentorships, incentives for good and improved attendance, and "Check & Connect" interventions that improve access to wraparound services for students with emotional challenges, which improves outcomes for students with a history of truancy. At the state level, Education Minnesota's Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee has established a strong online social network that enables educators, many of whom work in isolated areas, to support each other and brainstorm answers to complex problems tied to American Indian education.

It is an infrastructure built on the sustained commitment of all partners—work that is having an impact from kindergarten to high school, where the proportion of American Indian students enrolled is up 150 percent since 2010-2011 and MPS graduation rates within five years have more than doubled over the same span.

[Chelsea Prax, Mike Rose]