Blog Article

Chronic Absence and Native American Students: Unique Challenges

April 18, 2014

Attendance Works Associate Director for Programs, Cecelia Leong, spoke with Danielle Grant, the Director of Indian Education for Minneapolis Public Schools about Dream Big Minneapolis, an effort to improve attendance for Native American students. Grant is a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe.

How is attendance an issue for Native American students in Minneapolis Public Schools?
Our goal is for every student in Minneapolis Public Schools to attend 95 percent of the school year. Last year, district-wide, 60 percent of all students met that goal. In contrast, only 30 percent of our American Indian attended 95 percent or more. That’s half. A lot of times, people talk about the attendance gap or the achievement gap with regard to African American kids. In Minneapolis, 49 percent of African American students attend 95 percent of the time. The reality is that the rate for Native kids are a lot lower. For our kids to reach 49 percent would be a real triumph.

Why are students missing so much school?
For students in general, there are a range of reasons for missing school. There might be challenges around transportation. We provide a school bus but if a child misses the bus, his family might not have another means to get him to school that day. Frequently, we hear of a child not wanting to go to school because of bullying. Rather than calling the principal right away and addressing the issue, the parent might let the child stay home and that goes on for a substantial amount of time. Students might be home because of illness. Parents might not be clear about when it’s appropriate to keep them home or send them to school. They have a tendency to err on the side of keeping them home and that can lead up to chronic absenteeism.

These reasons are compounded in the American Indian community because of our historically negative relationship with the educational system. So we’re more likely to keep the child home or, if there’s some crisis going on in the family, we’re more likely to say that the kids don’t need to go to school.

What is that history with the schools? Many of us may not know a lot about it.
A lot of people may be familiar with the boarding schools, the most famous one being Carlisle, which had the motto “Kill the Indian to save the man.” The idea behind these boarding schools was to give these children what was seen as a better life. The boarding schools would teach these children English, train them for jobs, give them a white education and, in many cases, give them a new name. So Native children were taken away from their homes and their families to boarding school. Some children were as young as 4 to 5 years old. These were not nice boarding schools like the prep schools in the East. Most of these boarding schools were focused on a bare minimum of education with a couple of hours of education a day. The boys were trained to be laborers—digging ditches–and the girls were trained to be domestics. When the children returned to their communities, they could no longer speak their home language. They didn’t fit in anymore but they didn’t fit into the larger culture either.

There was a lot of abuse and illness at the boarding schools. In Canada, which also had residential boarding schools, a third of the children died at school. So if you were a parent and you trusted the school to take care of your child, imagine the shock and grief when your child never comes home because he died and was buried at school. In the Native community, the children are everything. To take the children away cuts at the heart of our culture. This is a historical trauma with repercussions through the generations. How you learn to be in a family is by being in one. You learn how to be a parent by being with one.

This was systematically done by the government. So if this happened in your family, you are not going to trust big systems and specifically, you are not going to trust the educational system. I would say people have a good reason not to trust the educational system.

What proportion of American Indians were affected by the boarding school experience?
I would say almost everyone. There were only a small number who did not go. Even if your family didn’t go, there were repercussions. It’s hard to hang on to your Native culture and language when your peers are gone.

What about the relationship with the current school system?
In the past, the education system was used as a tool of genocide against the Native peoples. To this day, there is still a great deal of distrust. The education system is still seen by many American Indians as trying to make us less Native, and more like the mainstream, and that makes for a complicated relationship. In addition, poorly understood educational neglect and truancy laws can also lead to misunderstandings and distrust by families.

In Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, 30 percent of educational neglect referrals result in out-of-home placements for American Indian kids. No wonder our families are very sensitive talking about attendance! They’re really scared you’re going to take their kids away. This winter, we invited families whose students had at-risk attendance to a dinner. These are students who are not truant — they attended between 85 – 94 percent of the year. We were hoping we could provide some assistance and push them up to being strong, solid attenders. If we could improve their attendance by 3 days a year, they would be at the attendance goal. Our invitation letter was very positive. As the day approached, I had my staff make some phone calls to families so we would know how many people to expect for dinner. We had multiple families say, “Are you taking my kids away?” You may not have had this happen in your own family but you know of a friend or a cousin that this happened to so people are really afraid. My staff felt really bad about scaring these parents. Most of my staff are Native themselves and have families too.

Social workers will call my department and say they want to do a home visit. I say, whoa, did they invite you over? Don’t go to their house unannounced. People aren’t going to open their doors for you. They’re not going to let you in because you’re a social worker. You think you’re there to help but they’re going to be afraid. You know, you’re not paranoid if it’s real! There are legitimate reasons for people not to trust the big systems like the school district.

Given this history, what have you found to be effective in encouraging students and families to make attendance a priority?
What’s really important to our kids are relationships. So number one, focus on relationship-building. It’s not about guilt-tripping the kids if they weren’t there. Instead, say, “You’re here today. It’s great to see you! We missed you.” We noticed you were gone. You bring something to your classroom. Everyone at the school from teachers to cafeteria staff needs to greet kids. It’s about making kids want to go to school.

We’ve been working with our non-profit partners on a campaign that stresses the importance of school attendance. As a Native community, this is not something that we’ve historically put a value on. It’s been ok for our kids to miss this much school. The truth of the matter is that it is not ok. So we’ve been working extensively with our community to get this message out, that attendance is important, why it’s important. We’ve gone to a lot of community events in an effort to get the dialogue going. What we started doing are pledges: for students, for parents, for community organizations. Students and parents pledge that they will attend 95 percent of the time. In the case of community organizations, they pledge that they will not organize events that will disrupt kids attending school. In the past, we had a situation where an organization had pulled kids out the second week of school to go harvest wild rice. Yes, it’s traditional and it’s important for kids to learn it but they shouldn’t be doing it when they should be in school. So this year, they did it on a weekend instead. You know, the lakes are open on weekends!

This year, we have a new slogan for our work. It’s “Dream Big Minneapolis: Attendance is the first step”. We now have a Facebook page and a website website ( that has tips on how to support their children’s attendance.

How is Dream Big different from Attend to Achieve, the messaging campaign for Minneapolis Public Schools?
A lot of it is the same, such as tips for minimizing chaos in the morning — lay our your clothes the night before so you get to school on time the next day. Attend to Achieve  didn’t really resonate in the Native community. We really thought more about how to connect school attendance to our dreams for our children. The implication of Attend to Achieve is that you attend and then you do better than other people. That’s contrary to the worldview held by most American Indians. What’s really important to us is our community. So when I say Dream Big, it’s for yourself and your child but also for your community.  This is the message from the well-known leaders in our community.

How did you get the leaders on board?
We’re still in the process. Initially, when we started the Dream Big campaign, several of us went to our leadership group which is called Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, a loose association of Minneapolis Native leaders since the 1970s, to get support. If you have big things that you’re interested in getting broad support for, this is where you go. We went and asked for support. There was actually quite a bit of push back about the making kids attend schools that are not supportive of their cultures. I had to push back and say that that’s something we’re working really hard at but we can’t wait for the moment where all schools are really great places for American Indian kids. We need kids to start attending now. These things have to happen concurrently. Having kids there puts pressure on making schools a better place.

How have families responded to Dream Big Minneapolis?
Everybody that we’ve talked to have been very supportive. As soon as they find out that this isn’t another “finger wag” at “bad” parents, they are supportive. There’s been too much blaming and shaming about attendance. We need to focus on the positive message of why attendance is important. There are real reasons why kids aren’t getting to school. That’s why we need to brainstorm with parents to find solutions. If your kid missed the bus and you don’t have a car, does your neighbor have a car? If we as a community are all taking ownership and responsibility around ensuring that our Native kids are in school, they will do it.

When we have school events, we ask parents whose children are 100 percent attenders, how do you do this? They come up and talk and people see that they’re no different than me but they’ve made a commitment as a family. They may not have had a great experience in school but they are determined that it will be different for their child. They have said this stops now. Maybe I don’t have all the skills and resources but I can ask for them. This is Dreaming Big.

What about messaging to students?
If I see a kid who is not in school when they should be in school, I need to say, “Why aren’t you in school?” I’m letting them know that they should be in school. That’s where they belong. That’s their job to learn. That’s their responsibility—to me, to their family, to their community. They need to learn so they can contribute to their community to the best of their ability. We should all be doing this.

The traditional value is that everyone contributes to the best of their ability. We’ve gotten away from that and we have to get back there. Kids need to be in school. Schools need to be engaging. When kids do well in school, they then are able to offer their communities their whole selves. That is the only way that we as an American Indian community that we will be able to heal. I pull my car aside and talk to kids all the time. The superintendent has told me that if I am arrested for this behavior, she will come and bail me out because she is supportive of me speaking to small children in the park who are not in school when they should be!

What advice would you give to non-Native Americans about working with Native families and students?
The most important thing is to listen more than you talk. Even as a native person, I needed to build relationships. I spent a lot of time listening to people’s concerns and ideas. What’s most important is to go to the community with your heart and mind open and say “I’m concerned about this. How can we help? What are your ideas?” Just because you’re not in a position to put them into practice doesn’t mean you don’t have ideas.

There isn’t a magic bullet. You have to keep doing it. Our families are more difficult to communicate with. They might not respond to the same mailing. You have to keep trying and keep it positive. The negative approach doesn’t work.  If something doesn’t work, keep trying. Try something else. It is too important to not try to find something that works for our kids.

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