Native American students in Alaska’s Anchorage School District are struggling. Compared to their non-native peers who graduate from high school at rates in the high 70s, they graduate at a rate of 56 percent. That number may soon be on its way up, though, thanks to a grant handed down by the U.S. Department of Education Thursday.
That day the Department announced the recipients of a dozen Native Youth Community Projects (NYCP) grants. The NYCP program, unveiled in April, is part of the White House’s overarching push to improve educational opportunities for Native youth around the country, called Generation Indigenous. The grants, which total $5.3 million, were offered to tribal communities that proposed specific plans to make local youth more college- and career-ready.
In Anchorage, Native students who participate in education programs offered by the Alaska Cook Inlet Tribal Council graduate at rates close to 90 percent. The Alaska Cook Inlet Tribal Council received a grant of $600,000, which will soon allow more students to benefit from their services. The Council plans to expand a specific middle school intervention program that seeks to keep kids in school and stresses the importance of academic achievement and attendance.
The intervention will also emphasize Native culture as a way to celebrate “sense of self,” said Gloria O’Neill, president and CEO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
Currently the council reaches about 150 students with their educational interventions. Soon, they will be able to reach 580.
“We believe this program provides incredible potential for Alaska Native American students in our community,” O’Neill told The Huffington Post. “We’re going to be able to touch a lot of students this next year.”
On a call with reporters, administration officials stressed how the grants are part of the White House’s larger effort to engage Native American youth. President Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in North Dakota in June 2014, and since that time, has focused investments on helping Native youth -- who face below-average graduation rates and test scores nationwide -- overcome challenges.
“Even with today’s announcements there’s so much more that we can and we must do to fully meet the needs of Native youth, and Native communities are ready to lead this change,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a call with reporters. “We’re very pleased to see that Native youth had the biggest jump in high school graduation rates last year -- bigger than any other subgroup of students -- and many communities are looking for ways to do more.”
“Native youth deserve a lot better than what they’re currently getting," he added. "They’re smart, they’re committed, they’re talented -- simply put, the odds are stacked against them and that has to change."
Indeed, Native youth face higher than average rates of suicide and poverty, and many of the schools they attend are in poor structural condition.
O’Neill said this administration seems more committed to Native country than previous ones.
“I’ve been in my position now, I won't tell you for how many years. We’ve worked with various administrations,” she said. “I really think that President Obama and Arne Duncan clearly have a strategic focus on Alaska Native [and] American Indian education.”