AmeriCorps Works: Providing Opportunities for Native Students
By Robert Cook
Robert Cook is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and senior managing director of Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative. In 2009 Teach For America launched its Native Alliance Initiative
to work in partnership with tribal communities to provide an additional source of effective teachers and help improve outcomes for students.
Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian, and American Indian students face some startling educational realities. Only 49 percent of Native students graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 86 percent. On average, 29 percent of all American students earn a college degree, while just 11 percent of Native students do the same. Native children experience some of the highest levels of poverty in our country, which greatly affects their academic and life options. It’s clear that as a country and a society, we haven’t lived up to our obligations to Native communities. But, there are also programs and individuals committed to service who strive to ensure these statistics are no longer the reality for Native students.
This week, as we recognize AmeriCorps Week and honor the impact AmeriCorps makes across our nation every day, it is important to highlight impacts occurring in Native communities. AmeriCorps investment is part of the Administration’s larger commitment to create lasting change in Indian Country by strengthening tribal communities through education and economic development.
As a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in the heartland of South Dakota and a veteran educator and school leader, I’ve taught many years on the reservation and faced many of the obstacles Native students encounter today. I witnessed firsthand how urban and rural schools serving Native students face unique challenges that, in large part, stem from historical relationships of distrust between tribes and government.
AmeriCorps members are working to address a range of challenges, including tutoring and mentoring Native youth, teaching nutrition and physical activity, preserving language and cultural heritage, protecting the environment, connecting veterans and their families to workforce resources, preparing for disasters, and tackling substance abuse issues.
And AmeriCorps programs like Teach For America are committed to preparing more educators to work in partnership with tribes and communities to help ensure all students have great education outcomes. In 2009 we launched the Native Alliance Initiative (NAI), and for the past 6 years we’ve worked hand-in-hand with Native communities to expand educational opportunities for their students. Building trust and relationships with local and regional partners is essential to this work. We’re giving our corps members more strategies for incorporating tribal and community culture into the classroom, focusing on recruiting more Native leaders to the teaching profession, and in our alumni, developing a critical pipeline of leadership committed to advocating for and building with Native communities and children.
This school year, Teach For America
welcomed its 25thcorps into our country’s highest-need classrooms. Our 4,100 new teachers joined an overall leadership force of over 50,000 corps members and Teach For America alumni. The 2015 corps includes 790 teachers working across six regions with significant Native student populations—communities with some of our country’s most pressing needs.
Over the past five years our NAI corps members, alumni, staff, and their communities have taken the initiative from a mere idea to a successful partnership. In 2013, our South Dakota region received formal Resolutions of Support from the Oglala and Rosebud Tribal Councils of South Dakota. In 2014, Teach For America partnered with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society
(AISES) to leverage the strengths of both of our organizations to increase the STEM success of Native students, as well as Native representation among STEM teachers. And in 2015 AISES named us a Top 50 Workplace for Native American STEM Professionals
for the second consecutive year. In 2010, through a competitive process, the Bureau of Indian Education recognized Teach For America as an approved additional teacher pipeline in all Bureau operated schools across the country. As an organization, we are grateful for these partnerships as they further solidify our connection to Native communities as we work to permanently close the opportunity gap for Native students.
To date, over 300 America Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian teachers have entered the field of education through Teach For America, and in the 2015-16 school year corps members across our NAI regions of Hawai‘i, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, the Twin Cities, and Washington state will impact nearly 38,000 students, representing more than 100 Federally Recognized Tribes.
We’re proud of the all that AmeriCorps and its programs have accomplished in partnership with communities, and we know there’s so much more to be done. We’re working alongside others to ensure that federal and state education policies support the needs of Native students and teachers, and build new partnerships to take on issues facing the communities where we work: bullying, suicide intervention
, inappropriate use of Native mascots
and negative imagery in schools, through cradle to career advocacy for Native students.
In the years to come, we have a real opportunity to make a profound impact on the lives of Native children through our committed network of corps members, alumni and many partners in Native Communities. Our efforts today are grounded in the spirit and fearless leadership of generations of Native leaders who continuously fought for the basic right of education.
Native communities are resilient in the face of historical and present-day injustice, buoyed by strong, vibrant and diverse cultures that deserve to be celebrated. Students in Native communities deserve an education to match that spirit, and AmeriCorps programs and corps members are proud to play a part in that.