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With graduation rates increasing, Spokane Public Schools’ Native Education Program hopes to build on success

Grant Elementary Elementary students of the Native Education Program hold their tribal signs, from left: Deborah Eaglespeaker, Suzy Eaglespeaker, Elias Abdullahi, Forever Buttrom, Kareece Tonasket, Kalahni Tonasket and Kameron Andrews-Tonasket, at the school in Spokane on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Grant Elementary Elementary students of the Native Education Program hold their tribal signs, from left: Deborah Eaglespeaker, Suzy Eaglespeaker, Elias Abdullahi, Forever Buttrom, Kareece Tonasket, Kalahni Tonasket and Kameron Andrews-Tonasket, at the school in Spokane on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

The Native Education program at Spokane Public Schools got some good news: graduation rates are up for the third straight year.

Last spring, 87% of Native American students graduated, up from 73% in 2019.

Tamika LaMere, coordinator of the district’s Native Education Program, hopes to build on that success through an ambitious program that could also boost Native students’ cultural education .

Last month, LaMere presented to the district’s board of directors an overview of the plan, including cultural curriculum development, identifying funding resources for program expansion and a system to increase engagement with the community.

That will take money, but LaMere hopes to find community partners to help the cause.

In addition to building core academic achievement, the district’s Native Education program seeks to boost cultural identity.

Of the 547 federally recognized tribes, 130 are represented by almost 2,000 students in Spokane Public Schools.

“Some kids, you ask them what tribe they belong to, and they won’t know,” LaMere said.

While it’s important to acknowledge that the school district and the city sit on the unceded lands of the Spokane Tribe, she also understands the needs of urban-dwelling Native Americans “with no knowledge of who they are as Native people.”

The federal Title VI Native Education program funds a variety of programs, including after-school, academic enrichment, tutoring and dropout prevention.

Cultural activities include singing, drumming, beading and learning how to prepare local Indigenous foods.

“It’s not just a supplemental enrichment program,” said LaMere, a member of the Little Shell Chippewas, which, like so many tribes, no longer has land to call its own.

“It really is about how we are going to reclaim our language and culture, and how is the school system in a good way teaching across curricula to make sure that the language is taught at all levels,” LaMere said.

As an example, LaMere poses a question that would resonate with some Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest: With winter approaching, how would you calculate how much wood needs to be cut and stored for an upcoming cold season?

“That’s math and science, and how we are valuing those knowledge bases,” LaMere said. “We are integrating them into what we do.”

On a broader scale, the Legislature in 2015 passed a bill requiring that “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State,” or other tribally developed curriculum be taught in schools. The “Since Time Immemorial” curriculum has been endorsed by all 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington.

During the next three years, LaMere hopes to create a cultural curriculum for all grade levels, including updating social studies class curricula to include Eastern Washington tribes’ histories, experiences and voices.

LaMere hopes one day the program will have a central location.

To that end, she plans to “continue to reach out to community partners, to really listen to the community and what their needs are,” she said.

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