Project Aims To Groom More Native American Teachers

As part of its education series Tell Me More explores the University of Oregon College of Education's Sapsik’wal’ Project that gives incentives and training for American Indian and Alaskan natives to teach at schools with large native populations. Host Michel Martin speaks with Alison Ball, co-director of the Project, and Frank Summers, a 2007 graduate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, I'll share my thoughts about what we too often keep to ourselves.

But first, we continue with our September Education series. We're having a series of conversations on what's outstanding, what needs improvement and what remains incomplete in the quest to strengthen the nation's schools, and give all children the best education possible.

Today, we're going to tell you about a program to improve the educational experience for Native American students. According to published figures, Native American students have the lowest high school graduation rate of all ethnic groups in this country. And while there might be many reasons for that, one, say many students, is that there are actually very few Native American teachers to look up to as role models.

Sapsik'wala' Teacher Training Project from the University of Oregon is one effort to change that. Project Director Alison Ball joins us from the University of Oregon.

We also have with us project graduate Frank Summers, who joins us from Chiloquin High School where he now teaches.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ALISON BALL (Project Director, Sapsik'wala' Teacher Training Project): Thank you for having us.

Mr. FRANK SUMMERS (History Teacher, Chiloquin High School): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, so, Alison, start us off. How does the project work?

Ms. BALL: We have a grant that we recruit students for the different cohorts of students that come in under a grant. It's a four-year grant with three years where we bring in the teachers. And the fourth year is induction year, which we provide support for the teachers once they leave the program. Cause it's known about teachers drop out of the teaching field probably about five years, so we kind of provide some support.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that if the graduates of the program go on to teach in Native American communities at the elementary, middle or high school levels, the program is free to them. And if they don't choose to continue on with teaching then they pay it back.

Mr. SUMMERS: Yes.

MARTIN: So, Frank, tell us why did you want to participate in the program? I understand that you didn't start out wanting to be a teacher. Do I have that right? You actually had your sights set on being a golf pro.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUMMERS: Yeah. Well, you know, from the early days I kind of had a sense that I wanted to become a teacher. Just the way things kind of played out, when I was in school not seeing myself or my people represented in the school system. I can remember when I was in junior high and I went to Chiloquin High School. I grew up here. My family, my tribe is from the town of Chiloquin, the Klamath Tribes.

And I can remember having a discussion with a science teacher about the Land Bridge because in my stories, the way I was raised, my creation story puts our people here. And so I always had kind of a sense in my mind that I, you know, wanted to be a teacher to teach an accurate history of who I am and who my people are.

But it took a long time. It was a long road. I went on to college. And, of course, that wasn't expected of me. And I didn't expect that of myself. Even here at Chiloquin High School, I can remember a counselor, you know, telling me to find a job in the mill or working in the woods or something like that - that I wasn't quite college material.

And I didn't have the grades for it. But I guess I took that as a challenge and I went on to Southern Oregon University, where I graduated with a bachelors of science and history.

I pursued a career in golf. The Oregon Indian Education Association had their annual meeting at the golf course I was working at. And they were like, hey, Frank, you know, we have this program. You know, we're trying to recruit folks. And they gave me a brochure as I was on my way to the pro shop, and I was like, wow.

MARTIN: But without the financial support, because the financial support is substantial. It's tuition. It's fees. It's supplies and so forth. Do you think that you'd be a teacher now?

Mr. SUMMERS: You know, it would have been a lot tougher. I can tell you that. I was being recruited at Southern Oregon University. I know that they had someone who was in the recruiting of minority potential educators. But there would have been some support, but I don't think it would have been full support to get that masters degree in education.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm, I see what you're saying.

Alison Ball, I assume that the underlying theory of the program is that having more Native American teachers is helpful, because Native American students presumably would relate better to these teachers, and that they would do a better job of teaching Native American students.

But is there really any data to support that theory?

Ms. BALL: At this point, I haven't seen any research out there. And I think because we're still trying to reach parity between the teacher and student population, where we can get more Native students out there.

MARTIN: That's a big investment on a theory. Though what - give me a sense of why the grantors thought that this would make sense.

Ms. BALL: I think because a lot of the Native American teachers - the Native communities there, a lot of communities are rural and kind of marginalized and real isolated. So when they do get real good teachers in, usually they stay there, probably, a year to five years and then they transfer out to better environments - school environments. But, so I think there is an investment for Native American teachers to go to these communities because they're already aware of what they're getting into, and they also have kind of innate cultural understanding of the needs of Native students. They know the history, the importance of language and world views, ability to link the culture of the school and the culture of the community.

MARTIN: Frank, talk to me a little bit about that, if you would. What difference do you think it makes that you share the cultural background of many of your students? Can you give me another example?

Mr. SUMMERS: Yeah. I think the students see one of their own. And I think the disparity of the years of how education was presented to Native American communities hasnt been inclusive. I mean you go back to contact and the first thing that happens is the boarding schools. Even my grandmother talks about when she was living in South Dakota on the Rosewood Indian Reservation, that's what happened to her. She was playing with her brothers and sisters; here come this white woman with the Indian police. You know, my grandmother remembers the woman waving her finger in her mother and father's faces, pointing at the kids, the kids were rounded up and shipped to a boarding school, separated from her brothers and sisters, their hair cut, their clothes cut and going into a Catholic boarding school. That was there introduction into education.

MARTIN: So basically the experience a lot of Native people have had is their experience with the educational system is basically to obliterate their culture or to tell them they're wrong and to min...

Mr. SUMMERS: Exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: Well, tell me a little bit about you learned in your Sapsik'wala experience that, and how does that shape how you teach?

Mr. SUMMERS: Well, we can identify that historical trauma that has been in place. And as the program, the Sapsik'wala Native teaching program does, is it allows qualified Native American students to become teachers and get their masters and go back to those communities to be more proactive in working with faculty and staff in those schools, to really give a hand up in building a foundation to allow Native American students to be successful.

MARTIN: Alison Ball, tell us about how many students have gone through the program so far, and how will you judge its success overall?

Ms. BALL: We have just graduated cohort of 16 students, and so that we have graduated 55 to 56 students so far, with a masters and a teaching license. I would say about 98 percent of them are out there teaching today. We haven't taken a formal tally, but I would say about 70 percent of the students that we know of for sure are out there teaching still today.

MARTIN: Well, Frank, final thought from you. I know its kind of a long road, from being a golf pro to teaching high school, but what do you think? Do you think youre in it for the long haul?

Mr. SUMMERS: Oh, definitely. You know, I just - I'm home, I'm walking the halls of the school that I attended, most of my family has attended. I feel a lot of pride in that, you know, and I try to instill that in my students, you know, that this is my high school. I graduated from here. I have my name on plaques in the hallway for athletics, and for one that I'm really proud of is the Chiloquin High School Turnaround Student of the Year for 1990. That one right there really surmises of who and what I am today, to be an educator.

I totally believe that any student that walks through the door does not have to compromise themselves. They can be free to be who they are and that, you know, any possibility is out there for them and I'm here to show them that path.

MARTIN: Frank Summers is a graduate of the Sapsik'wala Project from the University of Oregon. He is currently teaching social science at Chiloquin High School, which he also attended. He joined us from that school, and can hear that they're getting ready for their day in the background.

Alison Ball is director of the Sapsik'wala Project from the university, and she joined us from the university.

And I thank you both so much for speaking with us. And my best wishes for a successful school year for you both.

Ms. BALL: Thank you.

Mr. SUMMERS: Thank you. Sorry about my voice. I'm a football coach too, so I'm kind of losing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Doing a lot of yelling out there. Okay. Great. Well, good luck with the season then too.

Mr. SUMMERS: Well, I appreciate it.

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