Lakota immersion education model emerges in South Dakota | Local
Native immersion schools across the United States, such as those based on a model developed at the Native American Community Academy in New Mexico, have seen improved graduation rates and academic achievement for Native students.
In a 98-page research study by the American Indian College Fund, supported by the Kellogg Foundation in Michigan, the authors found significant evidence of the effectiveness of language immersion instruction for Native American students.
At the most basic level, proponents of immersion charter schools say it’s time to try the concept and that Senate Bill 139 would enable an experiment they say could be a game-changer for Native Americans. .
Although other immersion schools and educational programs exist on reservations in South Dakota, they are generally non-profit institutions that rely on donations and provide rewards that can be volatile and subject to the vagaries of change. the economy in general or trends in donations.
Proponents of the measure say that adequate and consistent levels of funding provided by the state are key to the success of immersion schools and their students.
Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools operated independently of traditional local school districts. Schools often focus on improving outcomes for underachieving student populations and may place greater emphasis on specific teaching methods or subjects not offered in traditional schools.
Most still fall under the jurisdiction of local school boards or another designated licensing agent, and students are generally required to meet all state passing and testing standards.
Opponents of charter schools often argue that they divert per-student funding from existing public schools and may allow for unorthodox or untested teaching methodologies and curricula.
Charter schools are considered by proponents to be effective because they allow for innovation in teaching methods and also greater flexibility in curriculum development, staffing, schedules, and teaching styles. South Dakota is one of only five states in the country that does not allow charter schools; four of these states are in the Great Plains, including South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana (Vermont is the fifth).
Supporters of Lakota language and cultural immersion schools have proposed similar legislation in three of the past five years, including Senate Bill 139, the bill currently before the legislature. .
The 16-page bill establishes a framework for public school districts to sponsor the establishment of Lakota immersion schools in reservation areas. Initially, the bill provided for the formation of four schools during a trial period of five years, but was amended this session to allow only two schools.
Native American students are the largest minority group in the state’s public school system. South Dakota has 688 public schools with about 136,000 students, of whom about 11 percent are Native and 72 percent are white. The state spends about $1.65 billion a year to fund public schools.
The Senate bill bases its proposed curriculum largely on Oceti Sakowin’s Core Understandings and Standards, a state-endorsed set of concepts that provides a framework for teaching Indigenous history and culture. . The 35-page set of lesson plans and teaching guidelines includes teaching aids on the history, culture, language, treaties, identity and way of life of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux Indians.
However, bills to mandate the teaching of Oceti standards in South Dakota public schools failed this term, and use of the standards remains mixed at best in South Dakota schools. A 2021 state survey of more than 700 educators in 125 school districts found that only 45% of educators said they use Oceti Understandings in their schools, and 9% of educators said their schools do not celebrate in any Aboriginal history or culture.
Opponents of the current Senate bill consistently point to their support for improving educational outcomes for South Dakota Native students. This year, opponents of SB 139 are making essentially the same arguments as in previous years when the immersion charter school concept was proposed.
Opponents this year include South Dakota Associated School Boards, South Dakota School Administrators, the South Dakota Education Association and a lobby arm of the state’s largest school districts, including Sioux Falls.
Rob Munson, executive director of South Dakota School Administrators, told News Watch that a new law allowing Lakota immersion schools is unnecessary because school districts in the state can already open and operate schools. linguistic immersion. As an example, Munson cited Sonia Sotomayor Elementary in Sioux Falls, a publicly operated and funded K-5 Spanish immersion school; and a Lakota language immersion class at Canyon Lake Elementary School as part of the Rapid City area school system.
Munson also said the bill as drafted could allow a single school to consume a disproportionate amount of a school district’s overall budget, including state and federal money and all other income, such as fundraising efforts, concession sales at sporting events, or grants given to school districts for other specified purposes.
The final section of the bill would require school districts to fund Lakota Immersion School based on a percentage of the number of students in the school compared to the entire district. Once that ratio is determined, the bill would require the new school to receive “the portion of the total funding received by the district,” which could include funds used for overhead costs to operate the entire district, not just school.
“That’s not a good way to fund a school,” said Wade Pogany, director of the state school board association. “It doesn’t take into account the needs, it doesn’t take into account the particular circumstances of the school, it doesn’t take into account the staff.”
Opponents also noted that the third version of the bill closely resembles the other versions and does not appear to address concerns raised in previous hearings that could have made the legislation stronger and more palatable to school districts and lawmakers.
“We are not opposed to Indigenous children and we are not opposed to what this bill does in many cases,” Pogany said during his Senate testimony. “We oppose the same things we opposed last year… governance and funding.”
Sarah White, a former public school administrator in Rapid City who is now director of the South Dakota Educational Equity Coalition, said the state’s public education system has not accepted adequate responsibility for the lack of long-term success of Native American students. Testing data showing that Indigenous students are consistently and historically underachieving compared to their white peers is clear evidence of the systemic failure of the current public school model in South Dakota, she said. .
“The result of what the system imposes gives an undeniable truth that the system was not intended for our students and is not designed for the success of our students,” she said. “We are also seeing a clear and consistent evasion of responsibility for Indigenous education in our state.”
As a child, White attended reservation schools where she said her Indigenous identity and culture were pervasive in classrooms, on campus and in the community. When she went to college, she found that Native Americans were largely absent from the student body, in campus adornments and classroom educational experiences. White said she finds it much harder to feel welcome and excel in this academic setting.
White said the eldest of her four children attended traditional public schools in Nebraska and Rapid City before transferring to a high school run by the Oglala Lakota School District in Pine Ridge.
Her son “fell through the cracks” and did not do well as a minority in majority-white schools, which also tended to have large classes, White said.
Upon admission to Pine Ridge School, her son began to thrive, she said.
“For the first time, he said he felt like he could be himself in a college setting, and hearing that broke my heart,” she said. “There’s a combination of factors that contribute to his success, but I think the biggest measure of success was when he admitted he could finally be himself in this space.”