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Historic Obama trip, historic changes to revive Indian education

President Obama's historic trip to Indian country brings with it plans by the federal government to bring historic change to Indian education.
Native American dancers from more than 20 reservations in North and South Dakota perform before the arrival of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Friday, June 13, 2014, in Cannon Ball, N.D.
Native American dancers from more than 20 reservations in North and South Dakota perform before the arrival of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Friday, June 13, 2014, in Cannon Ball, N.D.

As President Barack Obama makes his historic visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation this week, the federal government is rolling out plans to overhaul the Bureau of Indian Education, which for decades has failed to offer quality education to Native American students.

The BIE is responsible for funding or overseeing 183 schools on 64 reservations in 23 states, whose student outcomes are among the worst in the nation. BIE-funded schools perform worse than every major public school system other than Detroit Public Schools and Native American students have the highest dropout rates in the country.

The Department of the Interior, which oversees the BIE, released plans on Friday in which the agency diagnosis many of its own failings and systemic issues obstructing the education of native youth. The so-called “Blueprint for Reform” offers solutions crafted following extensive consultations with tribes and tribal members from across the country.

President Obama said from Standing Rock Friday that more needs to be done to address the sad state of education and employment in Indian Country. 

The president touted the work his administration has done during his tenure, including pushing policy that strengthened tribal justice systems and bolstered tribal sovereignty.  

"Even as they prepare for a global economy, we want children, like these wonderful young children here, learning about their language and learning about their culture, just like the boys and girls do at Lakota Language Nest here at Standing Rock," Obama said.

The Department of the Interior concludes that “changes are necessary to provide tribal communities the resources and support needed to directly operate high-performing schools and to remove institutional obstacles that hamper student achievement.”

Those changes include a two-phase restructuring plan that will take place over the next two school years, wrapping up at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

The first phase includes improving the BIE’s responsiveness to school operational issues by establishing a School Operations Division that will focus on teacher and principal recruitment, acquisition and grants and educational technology. An Office of Sovereignty and Indian Education will also be established as part of phase one, with a goal of helping to bolster tribal sovereignty and capacity building for tribes to operate high performing schools and “allowing tribes to shape what their children learn about their tribes, language and culture.”   Phase two will focus on improving performance of individual schools through School Support Solutions Teams, using a “cradle to the classroom” approach that will include wrap-around services like prenatal care, children’s healthcare and counseling, according to the plan.  

“Every child can learn, and every school can succeed,” Charles Roessel, director of the BIE, said in a statement. “We have a moral obligation to ensure that we are providing Indian children with the quality education that they deserve. This redesign is a critical step in supporting each Tribe’s capacity to educate future generations of students who are prepared for college and a career and know and value their heritage.” The reforms were based on town-hall style listening sessions with community stakeholders on various reservations, educators and a seven-person study group appointed by Jewell and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “The future of Indian Country rests on ensuring American Indian children receive a world-class education that honors their cultures, languages and identities as Indian people,” said Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior, announcing the plan just hours ahead of Obama’s visit to North Dakota’s Standing Rock reservation.

“The redesign of the BIE reflects President Obama’s commitment to promoting tribal self-governance and self-determination, enabling the BIE to more effectively support tribal educators who best understand the unique needs of their communities,” she said.

Many in the tribal community will likely welcome news of the plan but also view it skeptically, as trust between federal government agencies and tribes has remained strained. More than a century of broken promises, periods of forced assimilation and violations of treatises that ensured that the U.S. Government would honor pacts to fully fund health and education services.

“One of the things we have a problem with is who is the people listening to our problem is the problem, the BIE,” Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, said during a recent BIE-tribal consultation. “To me that doesn’t make any sense. You know we all have to admit it. It’s been a failure.”

There’s also been direct pushback in response to the new BIE restructuring plan.

“How we see this plan is simple. The bureau is asking for more money and more staff to continue doing nothing,” Christopher G. Bordeaux, a longtime educator and executive director of the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, a group of tribal schools on reservations across South Dakota, told Education Week. “For years, we’ve asked the bureau for help, but we never get it. We figure out how to do this stuff on our own. The bureau really has no idea what tribal schools are all about, and they’ve not taken the time to ever listen and learn how to help us, and then they turn around and point to us and say the schools are failing.”