Strategies to Increase Engagement of American Indian, Alaskan Native and/or Native American Families

  1. Make physical spaces reflective
  2. Emphasize community connections
  3. Embrace Indian and Treaty Law
  4. Connect with tribal calendars
  5. Connect habits of mind to a culturally appropriate narrative
  6. Celebrate successes, especially in Tribal priority areas
  7. Use culturally appropriate mechanisms to engage families
  8. Be transparent with policies
  9. Ensure policies support student learning
  10. Connect to ancestral language and culture efforts

Increasing Parent and Family Engagement (PFE) is one of the pillars of ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). OSPI provides a wealth of resources for Title I, Part A LEAs and schools on its revamped PFE webpage. One of the most compelling resources is the Essential PFE Strategies page, which is divided into two areas reflecting two types of strategies: 1) Required Strategies that Build Capacity for Family and Parent Engagement, and 2) Allowable Strategies that Build Capacity for Family and Parent Engagement. This resource provides information essential for Title I, Part A LEAs and schools, just as the greater body of research clearly demonstrates that increased PFE is one of the pillars of success for all young humans moving through our health, justice, social service, and educational systems. In fact, a cross-disciplinary approach to strengthening families, the Family Engagement Inventory (FEI), acts as a bridging resource to help providers from a variety of disciplines coordinate PFE efforts.

That said, another bridging resource would be helpful in many districts and schools in our state — information to help district and school staff differentiate PFE strategies for families of students who identify as American Indian, Alaskan Native, and/or Native American. (While there are legal complexities that surround each of these three group names, I will use all three terms in the acronym AI/AN/NA to be as inclusive as possible.) For families living on federal Indian reservations, and/or who trace ancestry to a Tribe or Tribes in the United States, there are additional and complicated layers of legal, historical, and socio-cultural/socio-linguistic information which need to be considered.

At the outset of this conversation, I find it important to acknowledge a distinction that the anthropological literature recognized in the early 1980s: education and schooling are two different processes. All cultures educate their children, but not all cultures use schooling as the vehicle for that education. This dichotomy created a disconnect between American society and its emphasis on institutional schooling and the practical, culture-and-family-based education of North American Tribes. These disparate systems publicly collided in the manifestation of boarding schools, institutions that purported to be agents of education but were often the agent of intentional linguistic and cultural genocide.

The persistent and depressing statistics that surround Washington’s current students who identify as American Indian/Alaskan Native/Native American (AL/AN/NA) remain connected to a fundamental distrust between Indian Country and institutional schooling. Creating and using effective and culturally-responsive PFE systems generates events that are helpful, Einteresting, and enjoyable and can build partnerships that overcome historical mistrust with the families of AI/AN/NA students.

My professional experience (as a formally trained anthropologist, educator, and school and district administrator) and my personal experience (living/working/raising my family on the Makah Reservation for the last 40 years) demonstrate that traumatic historical associations can be eliminated and replaced with positive partnerships at the family and Tribal levels. An example follows.

In the Winter 2014 edition of Washington Principal, I wrote about the important role student voice played in the radical transformation at Neah Bay High School (July 2005 to June 2014) when I was principal. By 2010, Makah high school students were outperforming the state averages in ELA, math, and science, in part because local cultural and Tribal priorities were, where and when possible, incorporated into our PFE as well as the fabric of building/district operations.

Before I offer some differentiated PFE strategies to use with families of students who identify as AI/AN/NA, please be advised of a few important facts: 1) The anthropological literature employs linguistic and cultural classification frameworks for Tribes with Treaty and Usual and Accustomed Areas in the United States. One cannot assume that two Tribes are linguistically and/or culturally related to each other, even if they happen to be geographic neighbors. 2) Families of students who identify at AI/AN/NA can live on reservation land of their tribe or another tribe, as well as in any urban, suburban, or rural area. Having a mechanism to track and connect each student who identifies as AI/AN/NA with the proper Tribe will help families feel respected and honored.

Here then, are 10 differentiations of best practice strategies linked to increasing engagement for the families of students who identify as AI/AN/NA. These strategies are offered in no particular order and are offered as options and considerations to be reviewed and adjusted contextually by LEAs, school administrators and staff, Tribal representatives, and parents and families.

Strategy #1 –Make sure physical spaces reflect the visual images important to families of AI/AN/NA students.

Many internal and external spaces could be enhanced with designs and visuals important to the families of AI/AN/NA students and their Tribe(s) at very little cost. Students and local Tribal artists, as well as Tribal cultural centers, are excellent resources. As an example, Neah Bay High School responded to family requests for more Makah images in our buildings by offering its halls to house an historical photo exhibit from the Makah Cultural and Research Center (MCRC), the Makah Tribe’s museum. The MCRC was able to include the increased viewing data (from students and families) in its success metrics as well, so all stakeholders benefitted from this collaboration.

Strategy #2 — Emphasize community connections and partnerships with the Tribe and other organizations.

AI/AN/NA families are intensely interested in the relevance of school and its programs to the needs/dreams of its children and families, and mentoring programs are well received. The “Roots to Wings” medical mentoring program at White Swan High School on the Yakama Reservation is a great example. A collaboration between the Yakama Nation, The Mount Adams School District, The Northwest University of the Health Sciences, Heritage University, and The University of Western States, the program matches high school students with a medical student who struggled in high school and overcame obstacles. The story of the “Roots to Wings” program is in press and will appear shortly as Chapter 3 of the The Wiley-Blackwell International Handbook of Mentoring: Paradigms, Practices, Programs, and Possibilities.

Strategy #3 — Learn about, acknowledge, and embrace Indian and Treaty Law.

The Since Time Immemorial website and curriculum can be a valuable resource to district and school administrators for PFE information as well as a required student curriculum. When a district recognizes the rights a federally recognized Tribe has reserved in its respective Treaty, an important part of a trusting relationship can move forward. A next step might be to have a Consultation (Executive Order 13175) about how federal funds are spent for education, and an important synergy of resources can result. This synergy can translate to increases in PFE, as a Tribe can help advertise, or even recommend, that families engage with or attend school events. In the case of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, their 2017 ESSA Consultation with the Sequim School District resulted in procedures for Tribal advocates who could help support families in understanding and attending school-based meetings, including IEPs.

Strategy #4 — Work with each Tribe connected to your district to learn about its governmental, subsistence, and cultural calendars.

Our transformational work at Neah Bay High School took a giant step forward when we aligned and coordinated our calendars, especially the funding calendars (fiscal years) for several coordinated grants. Tribal programs which had resources to offer knew the high school timelines so we could augment resources for students. As for understanding subsistence and cultural calendars, the high school was able to accommodate families and plan for extended absences accompanying funerals, or hunting and fishing seasons, using our ALE program, before- and after- school opportunities, and weekend school. Increasing PFE for families of students who identify as AI/AN/NA will not happen when a district or school gives the impression that it impedes opportunities for economic benefit and cultural participation.

Strategy #5 — Explicitly link the development of Executive Functions and Habits of Mind to a Tribal and culturally appropriate success-driven narrative, rather than the school-based discipline function.

Because of the historical associations mentioned earlier, Neah Bay High School explicitly linked “discipline” with Career and College Readiness instead of the “power and authority” of the school system. Being a GEAR UP school helped us reinvent Neah Bay High School as the institution “that prepared the Makah Tribe’s 21st Century Work Force.”

Strategy #6 — Attach positive status to students who work hard and embrace growth and improvement, and develop celebratory events using Tribal priorities.

Celebratory events are better attended when families feel their status elevated, the same way Complex Instruction leverages student status in the classroom. When growth and improvement — sometimes in small increments as per MTSS plans — are publicly celebrated along with high GPA, families are grateful to see hard work and effort recognized, especially in a Tribal context. One of the best attended celebrations of student effort at Neah Bay High School was in the spring of 2013; the late Billy Frank, Jr. honored our invitation to hand out awards.

Strategy #7 — Learn and use culturally appropriate mechanisms to invite families to school events; have these events at a Tribal location if time is needed to increase family comfort at a school facility.

There is a “Culture of Inviting” on the Makah Reservation. Invitations personally delivered to each house were more likely to be honored than if an email or robo-call conveyed the message. In addition, while we were rebuilding relationships with families, Neah Bay High School held student recognition celebrations at the Tribe’s Community Hall because that location was comfortable for families. Once student outcomes improved, we moved the celebrations back to the school.

Strategy #8 — Be transparent with policies and procedures and purge privilege from district and school systems.

Make sure handbooks and online resources are updated to reflect the state’s new discipline laws, and that text is included that explains the importance of equity and MTSS systems.

Strategy #9 — Make sure school and district officials can answer the “why” question for every process, procedure, and policy, and substitute MTSS structures where privilege once existed.

Too often, students who identify as AI/AN/NA are excluded from educational settings for behavioral violations. In fact, OSPI’s current data shows AI/AN/NA a close second to Black/African American students in this category. Public school law, processes, procedures, and policy are not always familiar to students or families, so be prepared to explain. Do not assume defiance or disrespect, no matter the age of the person asking. Look for cultural analogs to help explain school structures. For example, explaining the function of our school dress code in terms of the function of the Makah dance gear restrictions helped foster understanding.

Strategy #10 — Make sure that the district/school is linked to ancestral language and culture preservation programs and efforts, and that students learn to code-switch between school and home behaviors, when appropriate.

De-linking the district and school from the historical function of schooling and substituting language and cultural preservation programs will increase trust and PFE in no small measure. A number of ancestral language programs across the state are now part of OSPI’s dual language initiative, and Title VI funds can, with Parent Committee approval, be used in service of this strategy.

The research is clear that developing a relationship of trust takes time and clear communication. Supporting PFE, and allowing for a few bumps on the path along the way, will produce positive outcomes for students who identify as AI/AN/NA.

Written by by Ann M. Renker, PhD