We can’t reimagine American high schools without rethinking our neglect of American Indian education

Note: This post was adapted from a letter written to Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of XQ.

I was thrilled to read about XQ: The Super School Project–the kind of movement it will create, the opportunities it will provide to students in our high schools, and the impact such schools will have on our future leaders. I am a big fan of design thinking, creativity, and technology integration with education.

However, I was somewhat disappointed to see that one particular type of school–one on an American Indian reservation–was not awarded a major prize in the Super School Project. The condition of schools and education on reservations is an issue that has plagued the U.S. for many years and still remains unresolved.

The 2014 Native Youth Report released by the White House stated:

“The American Indian/Alaskan Native high school graduation rate is 67%, the lowest of any racial/ethnic demographic group across all schools. And the most recent Department of Education data indicate that the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools fare even worse, with a graduation rate of 53%, compared to national average of 80%.”

The report also cites that:

“Of the 183 BIE schools, 34% (63 schools) are in poor condition, and 27% are over 40 years old […] Sixty percent of BIE-funded schools do not have adequate digital bandwidth or computers to meet requirements of new assessments to college and career ready standards.”

Other investigative articles cite “mold, structurally-unsound buildings, overflowing toilets in disgusting restrooms, unreliable water supplies, freezing or blazing hot temperatures and overcrowding” as some of the conditions that students struggle with on a daily basis.

How can we think about schools where “walls talk, where books fly and global boundaries disappear” if there are schools in our country where the learning environment is an immediate threat to students’ health and safety?

I have seen these conditions first-hand in five years of education work with Native North American Nations across U.S. and Canada. While it remains true that the American high school needs to be reinvented, there is a greater, more pressing need to improve at least some of the schools in these conditions. How can we make the XQ school model attainable to BIE schools, which have not yet caught up to high schools in this generation? Before we create super high schools, the playing field must be leveled.

As philanthropists, entrepreneurs, leaders, creators and innovators in the field of education, the state of these schools is our burden to bear. If we are going to work as a collective to create and foster an education system that “lives up to our values and enables aspiring Americans and new immigrants to thrive and contribute,” this system needs to include all Americans.

The same amount that has been allocated to the Super Schools could go a long way to begin the necessary repairs across BIE funded schools. In light of these issues, I would hope XQ would consider including, as part of the priorities in The Emerson Collective, a focus on improving existing schools on American Indian reservations. This would fit well with the already existing themes of education and justice.

Everyone deserves a fair chance to learn, thrive and contribute. But that starts with something as simple and basic as a structurally sound facility to learn in.


Photo courtesy of Politico.com.

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Yuliya Manyakina

Yuliya Manyakina

Yuliya has been working in partnership with various Native North American Nations across the U.S. and Canada to preserve language and culture since 2011. Through her previous work at The Language Conservancy Yuliya began following local, state and federal activities in education policy, language legislation and the education achievement gap. She is interested in bringing together the cross-section of language, education and technology to close the gap. She received her M.A. in Linguistics from McGill University in 2015.

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