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Looking to boost Native American education while preserving tribal culture, federal education representatives visit North Idaho as $1 million grant rolls out

Amy Loyd, left, assistant secretary for Career, Technical and Adult Education for the Department of Education, shares a laugh Friday at Coeur d’Alene Tribal School in De Smet, Idaho.  (Brian Plonka/

DE SMET, Idaho – The families of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe could use some help from the federal government.

The right kind of help, that is – a point made clear Friday when two senior officials from the Department of Education visited the tribal school in Benewah County.

“It’s important that education isn’t something that’s being done to us,” said Chris Meyer, director of education for the tribe.

Chief James Allan was more direct, recalling that long ago “the government wanted to wipe us out.”

However, tribal leaders found a receptive audience in Amy Loyd, a senior advisor to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona; and Hollie Mackey, executive director of a White House Initiative to advance education and economic opportunities for Native Americans.

Even better, Loyd is a Zuni Pueblo, and Mackey is Northern Cheyenne, which lent weight to Loyd’s promise to speak “nation to nation.”

The occasion, officially, was the announcement of a $1 million federal grant to support Native American languages nationwide. The grant aims “to maintain, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans and Alaska Natives to use, practice, maintain, and revitalize their languages ….”

However, a roundtable discussion in the school library focused on the continuing academic struggles of Native American children, specifically at the tribe’s K-8 school and the public Lakeside High School in Plummer.

Bad weather in Washington, D.C., on Thursday forced Cardona to scrap his flight to North Idaho. However, Loyd and Mackey already were on the ground .

Everyone at the table knew the dismal statistics, the product of poverty, lack of Native American teachers, parental indifference and scant funds.

According to federal statistics, 70% of the Native American students who start kindergarten will graduate from high school, compared to a national average of 82%.

Only 13% of Native adults hold college degrees, compared to 28% of all Americans.

It’s the same story at the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School, a tribally controlled grant school of 93 students funded by the Bureau of Indian Education.

“It’s not good, it’s not good at all,” Meyer said of tribal students’ recent scores on standardized tests. Meyer also cited a failure rate she termed as “enormous.”

The Bureau of Indian Education is responsible for funding tribal education for isolated, rural areas. Its task is to assist in removing educational barriers for the American Indian population, support teacher development, improve communications and offer technical assistance and guidance.

The level of funding has been criticized as inadequate, and so has the bureau’s handling of those funds.

Pointing to the poor education system as a reason for extreme poverty on Native American reservations throughout the country, a group convened by Arne Duncan, then the Education Secretary, released a report in 2014 that called the bureau a “stain on our nation’s history” and expressed an urgent need for reforms.

Predictably, academic results have been poor.

Only about 15% of Bureau of Indian Education students passed their school’s standardized English exam in the 2018-19 school year, and only 1 in 10 passed in math, according to federal records obtained by The Arizona Republic and ProPublica.

However, President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 includes $1.3 billion in funding to invest in bureau initiatives that would support Native students and teachers from early childhood through college, an increase of $110.6 million from the 2021 enacted level.

“It’s all about money,” said Allan, reflecting a mood among the tribe that for decades has ranged from cautious optimism to despair.

However, Coeur d’Alene tribal leaders acknowledged some failings on their end, including a lack of Native American teachers and indifference by some parents.

“I would say that there needs to be more Native teachers and principals,” said Tina Strong, who serves as the school’s principal and superintendent. “We try to encourage that, but we’re not getting a lot of buy-in.”

That forces the district to hire from outside, with mixed results.

“We go through a lot of teachers because of our location,” Strong said. “But as a teacher, if you don’t understand the community and the way of life – the culture – that’s going to project into your classroom, and your kids will see that.”

The problems of poverty and parental indifference are more challenging.

Allan spoke of the importance of “having both parents side-by-side with their children, helping them succeed.”

School board member Cheyenne Michelle said the district is continually working to create space for families to come together, and creating relationships.

Loyd and Mackey understand the obstacles, at least in general terms.

Loyd was the director of education for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska, leading a network of schools and wraparound services to the Alaska Native and Native American communities.

Mackey’s graduate research examined structural inequity of Indigenous and other marginalized populations in educational leadership and public policy.

After the roundtable, they toured the school. They dropped in on a first-grade Coeur d’Alene language class, built drums out of hide and wood and held a meeting with students in the school gym.

Loyd promised to bring the tribe’s concerns to Cardona but said she “believes that the solutions to moving forward are right here in the tribe.

“And we’re here to learn from the tribe about their vision, for what they want and need for their young people and their future … and how the federal government can help.”