Federal grants help Native teacher aides become certified teachersBy Ron Feemster May 14, 2013
A weekend at college is business as usual for the group of 24 working adults who gather at Wind River Tribal College Friday and Saturday. This afternoon, the class members present final performances in a class about using music to teach key concepts to preschool and elementary school students.
Before they take their final exam in the course, each student takes a turn being the elementary or preschool teacher, and the rest of the class plays the children. Christy Lincoln-Harris, a special-education aide who tutors second graders in reading and writing at St. Stephen’s school, has designed a lesson to teach units of length with movement and dance.
She tapes three lengths of masking tape to the floor. One is marked off into inches, the second into feet and the third into yards. She forms her fellow students into a snaking line, as they sway from one strip of tape to the next and moving forward in steps matching the length of the measurement units, all the while keeping time to a piece of orchestral music.
“Students will remember the concept because they will remember what it’s like to take short steps and then longer steps,” she explains later.
The group quite literally inches its way forward, making tiny mincing steps until it crosses onto the foot and yard-length tapes, where postures relax and the group finds a more relaxed, natural rhythm. At the end of the lesson, the group dances in a circle to the round-dance rhythms of traditional Northern Arapaho music, once again beginning with inch-long steps.
“When you start to move, you start to smile,” said Daniel Fee, the group’s teacher. Fee is an adjunct professor from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, who retired as a music teacher at an elementary school in Fond Du Lac, Wisc. “If your students remember the movement, they are more likely to remember the concept.”
Although most of the students live and work on the reservation, they are enrolled at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, which will certify them for a Wisconsin teaching certificate. The students will then transfer their certificates to the state of Wyoming and teach at schools within their own community. The first 15 members of the group, who began studying in mid 2010, will graduate with Bachelor’s degrees in December.
An Indian Education Grant from the US Department of Education pays the cost of tuition, fees and books for each student. The original grant for the first 15 students totaled $990,000. A second group started school at WRTC this semester and will be financed with a grant of $960,000. They will graduate in 2015. Members of both groups took Fee’s course.
Lana Shaughnessy, the Department of Education program officer in charge of the project, said the department has given 23 such grants to institutions around the country, which train Native teachers and, in a few cases, school administrators. Since 2005, 1,451 people have completed the program or are currently on track to complete it, Schaughnessy said.
To repay the government for its investment, each student who completes the program agrees to work one year for every year they went to school. For teaching service to count as repayment, they must work in a school on a reservation or in a school with a high concentration of Native students, Schaughnessy said.
“I think it’s great,” said Marlin Spoonhunter, president of the tribal college. “Students pursue a degree in elementary education without having to leave the reservation. Education is expensive. We don’t have to pay and the students don’t have to pay.”
If students drop out of the program, or if they fail to honor the repayment agreement with appropriate teaching service, the government can require than to repay the cost of their education, Schaughnessy said.
When the Wind River Tribal College first pursued the grant, they approached the University of Wyoming to be the accredited partner, said Mitchell Stone, the dean of instruction at the Tribal College, and the initial grant writer. But the university could not provide all of the required courses on the timetable the tribal college required.
Stone, who had been a professor of race and ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse, approached colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh who had experience collaborating with the College of the Menominee Nation in Keshena, Wisc.
The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh team quickly discovered that the students in the Wind River cohort were not ready for online learning. Some lived in housing with no landlines or cable TV connections for broadband Internet connections. Some lacked the computer know-how necessary to complete a class with learning software. All would to do better in face-to-face classroom situations.
“We hired local instructors when we could,” said Susan Finkel, who helped administer the program in Oshkosh. “When we couldn’t find local people, we flew our instructors out there.”
Finkel and her colleague, Suzanne Doemel will team teach a course in June and August with time out for the Sundance and powwows in July. After following the coursework of the first cohort closely for two years, they expect to have the experience that Daniel Fee, the music teacher had over the past four months.
Fee, who flew to Wyoming to teach his course in four concentrated weekends, once a month since February, said he has rarely encountered such dedicated students.
“They were so genuine and hardworking,” he said. “They sometimes missed a class, but they never made empty excuses. One had to take a granddaughter to surgery. Another had kidney stones. All of them had fulltime jobs, but they showed up and did excellent work.”
Finkel compared the students’ performance to the best work of traditional students at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh — the mostly young, mostly middle-class people who were going to school without the burdens of raising children or working full time.
“The work that they do is so amazing,” Finkel said. “We are delighted by the depth of thinking and the communication.”
Dwan Hereford, 28, has worked at Ethete Head Start since she learned that she was pregnant with Shelby, who is now 3. Immediately after finishing high school at Lander Valley, Hereford studied business management at Chadron State College in Nebraska. She was on a basketball scholarship, so her studies were paid for, but she left after two years without a degree. After a couple years spent team roping in rodeos and working as a bartender in the Southwest, she returned home to Ethete and finished her associate’s degree in general studies at Central Wyoming College (CWC) in Riverton.
“I got pregnant and needed a job,” she said. “Then I heard about this program, and I realized I could go to school again and it would be paid for. Now I’m a single mom, I’m employed full time, and I’m in school full time.”
What that means for Hereford and many of her colleagues is a life with little or no spare time. Many of her fellow students had to take courses in general education at CWC or the tribal college to meet their degree requirements, and all the students needed to show up for all classes offered by University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
When Finkel counts up the credits, the students are carrying a load that would qualify as fulltime on the Wisconsin campus. The Wyoming group had some input on the class schedule, Finkel said, and opted for concentrated evening and weekend courses.
“It was really hard,” Hereford said, “especially in the beginning. I had class every single night except Friday. I had to find a babysitter for Shelby—usually my Mom. Sometimes, once a month when the instructor was here, we would have class Friday night and all day Saturday. Then you have to do homework and go back to work Monday morning.”
But in the end, it will pay off, she believes. Her degree will get her a pay raise and more responsibility in the classroom at Head Start. And when she has repaid the grant, she will be qualified for a new job.
“I want to teach second grade or younger,” she said. “I think I’d like to work at Arapahoe School.”
Like Hereford, many of the students, who range in age from mid-20s to about 60, work at Head Start or one of the local schools. Joe Henry, executive director of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Head Start programs, is happy to invest in his employees.
“We have a very aggressive education program for staff,” Henry said. “We let them get off Thursday afternoon and Friday for class and we pay them for that.”
Head Start will not be able to pay them for teacher training, but Henry said they would be guaranteed the time off to complete the student teaching. And when they graduate they will be eligible for raises of about $2.50 per hour.
Since mid 2010, they have been carrying a full load of college credits and pursuing a bachelor’s degree, which will qualify them for promotions within their school districts.
Eventually, many of them will leave Head Start and move on, but even that is not a loss for his program, Henry believes.
“They do enrich the community,” he said. “The more Native teachers we get in the public schools of the reservation, the more successful the schools will be.”
In addition to local teachers’ better understanding of the community, the native teachers are important role models for children.
“In any environment, you need to see people who are successful and who look like you,” Henry said. He hires Native staff at Head Start in non-classroom jobs and finds the time and money to help them get the education to move into the classroom.
“Children need to have someone teaching them who has credibility,” he said. That is as true in elementary school as in preschool. “You don’t want them to say. ‘He’s not important. He’s not from my tribe. He’s not from any tribe.’”
Although students like Hereford and Lincoln-Harris will be qualified to move to new jobs, they realize they are entering schools that must watch every dime.
Henry has cut all teachers and staffers workweeks from 40 hours to 37 hours this year after the sequester sliced into his budget. Lincoln-Harris, the special-education aide at St. Stephens School, has been warned that she is likely to be laid off at the end of this year.
“It’s kind of depressing,” said Lincoln-Harris, who is in her 30s and is married with five children. “I’m finishing my dream degree and then all the budget cuts come.”
The Department of Education will continue to award grants to train elementary school teachers in the coming years. But Wind River Tribal College, which won grants in 2010 and 2012, may wait awhile before applying again.
“We need to be careful not to saturate the market,” said Stone, who wrote the previous grants. “Let’s give it a rest. We can let the next cohort graduate and see how they do. Then maybe we will reapply.”
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected]
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.