Sep 12, 2015 - Supporting our Native Students: A Message to Striking Teachers by Matt Remle

On September 9th, teachers in the Seattle school district went on strike on what was to be the first day of school.  The bargaining teams for the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the teachers union have been at a stalemate over a host of issues from teacher’s pay, recess, implementation of equity teams, and standardized testing.

I am in absolute full support of the teacher’s demands and offer my solidarity to them, but that’s not what this writing is about.  I am writing about the state of our Native students and the dire need of support they need, and are not getting, from both the Seattle Public Schools and from inside the classroom.

Of the 53,000 students in the Seattle school district, Native students comprise roughly 1.8% of the total student population.

According to most recent data, from 2013, the Native American student graduation rate in the SPS was only 48%.  In digging through old records of grad rates for our Native students, I was unable to find any year where the graduation rate was above 50%.

According to discipline records released in 2011, Native American and African American were disciplined at a rate x4 higher than their peers.  Native students accounted for 13% of the overall students disciplined.

According to Seattle Public Schools data, a whopping 25.6% of Native American students are tracked into Special Education programs, the highest for any racial/ethnic group in the SPS.

Representation in the classroom. 66% of the students in the Seattle public schools are non-white, while 79% of the teachers in the district are white. Only 0.6% of the teachers in the district are Native American.

It is clear that our Native students are not succeeding in the Seattle Public Schools.

Inside the classroom, our Native students are subjected to racist curriculum from the celebration of Columbus’s voyages and manifest destiny, to one that completely erases them from history and insists on teaching the long standing lie about the Bering Land bridge myth.  Native knowledge and worldview is often disregarded as superstition.  When our students challenge this racist history, or the disregard towards their worldviews, they are often subjected to being silenced and or ridiculed from peers and staff alike.

Last year, members of the local Native community were successful in getting both the Seattle city council and Seattle school board to rename the second Monday in October, the Federal holiday Columbus Day, to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  While the city held numerous celebrations in honor of the new holiday, Native students and family feedback suggested that Indigenous Peoples’ Day received little to no recognition within the schools.

In 2004, the Washington State congress passed H.B. 1495, which led to the creation of the Since Time Immemorial Tribal Sovereignty curriculum (STI), created in partnership with the regions 29 tribes.  The curriculum, which was, and is, free for teachers and districts, was created to correct the historical inaccuracies regarding Native peoples of the region, as well as, teach about tribal government, culture and current affairs.  The legislation also called on school districts and teachers to partner with local tribes on presentation of curriculum content, plan field trips, and bring in guest speakers.

While H.B. 1495 strongly encouraged teachers and districts to utilize the STI curriculum, few teachers and districts around the state did so.  In fact, only two school districts in the state, Marysville and Fife, formally adopted the curriculum as required content, previous to the passage of SB 5433 in 2014, which now mandates all school districts teach the STI curriculum.

In 2012, the Seattle school district closed the doors on the Seattle Indian Heritage high school after its 40 years of serving Native students.  We saw little outcry over its closure outside of the Native community.

From the late 1800’s – 1960’s, the U.S. government funded Boarding Schools forbid the speaking of Native languages.  As a result the vast majority of Native languages are endangered with many have gone extinct.  Seattle Public School’s, International Schools, offer dual language immersion teaching for Japanese, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese languages.  Students in these schools receive 50% of their learning instruction in one of these languages.  While I wholeheartedly support these programs, a search of all schools in the Seattle School District reveals that no Native languages are being offered, including Lushootseed the traditional language spoke in this region, in any school.

So what does this all have to do with the teachers strike?  Yes, we support striking teachers, but that support needs to be reciprocated especially when it comes to supporting our Native students who are, and have been, failed by the district, state and schools the most.  An overhaul is needed from curriculum content, to the ways students are disciplined, to bringing in Native languages into the classroom, to ending the push out (not drop out) of our youth.  We stand with you, will you stand with us?

Last Real Indians