Alternative Education for American Indian Students

Jeffries, R. B. & Singer, L.C.  (2003).  Successfully educating urban American Indian students:  An alternative school format.  Journal of American Indian Education, 42(3), p. 40 – 57.


In Rhonda B. Jeffries and Lyndon C. Singer’s (2003) article, “Successfully Educating Urban American Indian Students:  An Alternative School Format, the researchers explore the benefits of an alternative school that serves a significant population of American Indian students.  Black Raven High School “was created in 1994 by concerned American Indian professionals, parents and affiliated entities in response to the high academic failure and dropout rate of American Indian high school students in the public school system” (p. 45).

Black Raven High School employed 10 teachers:  3 American Indian, 2 African American and 6 Anglos.  Both the principal and assistant principal were American Indian.  And, the majority of support staff, tutors and volunteers were also American Indian.  The majority of the 9th – 12th grade students between the ages of 14 – 18 identified as American Indian.  The American Indian students that enrolled had either already dropped out or were at risk of dropping out.  Referrals for student enrollment came from other schools and the students’ families.  Student enrollment was limited to 80 students, however, about 70 students would show up on any given day.  Class sizes did not exceed 15 students, with the average being 7-8 students.  Black Raven’s developed a philosophy of values that promoted “a sense of community, self-esteem, ethnic identity and pride, and an appreciation of all cultures and their relevance in today’s society” (p. 46).

Data were collected through observations and “life history interviews with students, teachers, the administrative assistant, and the principal” (p. 46).   The data for this study included perspectives from 1 administrator and 3 students.  The case study was centered around one educator “whose use of culturally relevant curricula has made a significant impact on a randomly selected sample of American Indian students’ lives” (p. 46).  Data were analyzed through the creation of verbatim transcripts, coding the transcripts to develop thematic frameworks using the constant comparative method, and then recoded for confirm the themes initially established.

The data revealed “significant factors contributing toward American Indian/Alaska Native student success” were “(a) small school size, (b) flexible school formats, (c) governance structures, and (d) culturally responsive teachers” (p. 52).  When school size and flexible schedules uncontrollable, the study found that culturally responsive teachers were enough to “create conducive environments” (p. 52).


I appreciated the researchers desire to examine non-traditional education as it pertains to the education of American Indian students.  Much of the research that I have discovered has been focused on traditional educational systems such as public schools and Bureau of Indian Education schools.  I think too often researchers are focused on the traditional educational systems’ lack of equity and quality that they are unaware of the assets that do exist within the system.

However, I would like to know if the researchers considered examining a rural alternative school.  I would be interested to know if they were able to come up with similar findings.  And, if not, what were the reasons for the differences.

I would also like to know the impact this school made in regards to the initial concerns of academic failure and dropout rates.  Did the school create an increase in academic achievement and retention to graduation?

My other concern was the small number of participants in this study.  Only 1 administrator, 1 teacher and 3 students were included in the case study.  I would have liked to read the perspectives of the other administrator, the other 9 teachers, and the other 77 students that made up the school body.  Again, I am left to wonder if the researcher limited her data to these 5 individuals because it proved what she wanted to prove.

I would also have liked the data collection to include interviews and perspectives from graduates.  How did this school change their lives and lead them to graduation, which they may not have accomplished otherwise?

I would also have liked to see the statistics over the course of its existence that included student enrollment numbers, pre- and post-test scores, and attendance, dropout and graduation rates.  I understand that students enjoy the non-traditional approach, but did it have an effect on the data?  If not, then what is the point?  If so, what other interventions did the school provide for the students to achieve this?


As I read this article, I found myself writing in the margins “I need to do this” or “how can I do this?”  I am always looking for ways to improve our program.  And, hopefully, this year, with a new staff coming in, we will be able make significant changes.  However, I know the scope to which we can make these changes will be limited by administration.  But, I will fight for them anyway.

Because I work in an alternative school on the reservation, I was interested in what the study would find.  However, these are all things that I think would benefit any student both Natives and non-Natives.  Culturally relevant teaching should not only pertain to American Indian culture.  It did give me some ideas as to how we may be able to incorporate non-traditional activities into our curriculum.  How I am going to this, I am not sure exactly considering I have 7th – 12th grade students in my classroom at the same time and each is working on coursework specific to them.  I am interested in the new perspectives that will be coming in that may be able to assist in this process.

I especially appreciated this point that Jeffries and Singer addressed “we must remember that American Indians/Alaskan Natives represent over 200 distinct cultures.  What works beautifully on the Navajo Reservation falls flat on the Rosebud Reservation and may be inapplicable in an urban setting representing 60 different cultures” (p. 54).  It is critical that researcher and educators keep this in mind.  I do not like the generalizations that literature often makes about Native Americans.  And, this is precisely why I am only interested in focusing on my tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation.  It is the community in which I live and my family is from.  It is the community in which my children will attend school.

Communities of Practice


As we learn and grow we ask ourselves the age-old question: Who am I? As I begin reflecting on this question I realize that I am multifaceted and belong to a wide array of social learning systems. When I am at work I am an educator, when I am at Arizona State University I am a scholar, and the list continues. According to Wenger (2000), “since the beginning of history, human beings have formed communities that share cultural practices reflecting their collective learning” (p. 229). I myself can identify with multiple communities of practice, which have given me the feeling of belonging, identity, and intellectual growth. Wegner (2000) describes communities as the basic building block of social learning, if this is the case: How can we use this already embedded human characteristic to help improve our educational practices?

How can we utilize our students’ community identities to help improve the access, excellence, and impact of their education? As educators, we need to view our students as individuals who are members of multiple communities that they seek out for academic and emotional support. Within the article titled, Unveiling the Promise of Community Cultural Wealth to Sustaining Latina/o Students’ College­Going (2009), the authors state that “low-income students of color respond to their needs for educational advancement when conditions to support their college-going identities are severely limited in the school context” (p.534). It is our responsibility as educators to recognize the needs of our students and help connect them with the support resources they need. The question remains: Where are the students receiving the support if they are unable to acquire it within the four walls of the school? Within the same article, Liou , Antrop­González, and Cooper, explore the multiple communities that many of the students belong to and the types of support they receive. A considerable number of students stated that a majority of their support from their families, churches, sports teams, friendships, and community-based organizations. What is stopping our schools from tapping into all of these student support resources?

Schools across the country must identify the key-players in the support of our students and work cohesively to allow for increased student success. Our students would greatly benefit from an intertwined approach to education, where we partner with multiple communities and work together to form a unified educational powerhouse. My belief is that this can happen at the school level by determining key stakeholders in the education of the students, which would lead to a plan to engage all individuals in the academic process. These partnerships can offer the students a wide variety of benefits such as, tutoring, college application support, culturally relevant curriculum, mentoring, academic assistance, and hands-on opportunities to implement information learned in the classroom. As educators, we can bring the communities to our students and give them a higher level of academic access. I unreservedly believe that if schools take the time to determine the key-players in the education of their students, reach out to these stakeholders, and engage them in discussions of partnership, our students would have a higher level of support and a much better chance of receiving an excellent education. There is a wealth of support for our students within the community but it takes effort from the schools to build the appropriate connections.

Not only can we tap into the communities as a means of support, we can also utilize the community-based knowledge that is familiar to our students, in order to assist them in grasping the concepts. Liou et al. (2009) eloquently discuss the “benefits of classroom practice by centering teachers’ pedagogical emphasis on the local, community-based knowledge of working class Mexican students” (p. 536). Teachers who use the local knowledge help students gain better access to the instruction, allowing for students to better relate to the objectives. A similar thought is discussed in the Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (2008), where a “culturally based approach to science education” (p. 487) is addressed. The authors redefine science education for Native American students, which guide me to believe that we can adjust our teaching practices to meet the needs of our diverse student population by means of integrating community-based knowledge into our instructional strategies.

How can we create a solid school community? What steps must we take in order to create a strong tight-knit school community? Wegner (2000) outlines the components required in order to build a strong community of practice, which includes: leadership, connectivity, membership, learning projects, and artifacts (p. 231-232). Membership, where a “community’s members must have critical mass so there is interest, but it should not become so wide that the focus of the community is diffuse and participation does not grab people’s identities,” (p. 232) is particularly relevant to a school community. In order for us to build an effective school, we must take our students into consideration when developing the curriculum. If the students feel as if the curriculum is community-based and culturally relevant, they will be more inclined to identify with the community as a whole.

It is time for our education system to stop believing that a school is an island; we need to begin making greater strides in integrating communities into our academic quest for excellence. We cannot do it alone; we do not have the resources, staff, or knowledge to meet the needs of our students. We must do our homework and reach out to all interested parties. No one entity can educate a child; we must work together as a community.



Denzin, N., Lincoln, Y. & Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2008). Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

 Liou, D., Antrop­González, R. & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the Promise of Community Cultural Wealth to Sustaining Latina/o Students’ College­Going Information Networks.Educational Studies, (45), 534­555.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225­246.

The Power of Believing in Cultural Capital

“If I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge – and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject….In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.  When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are.  I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my own unexamined life – and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well.”  (Palmer, 1998 as cited in Howard, 2003)

Where has this article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:  Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection” by Tyrone Howard (2003), been all of my professional career? This is critical information that I have tried to explain to my fellow colleagues over the years.  To the ones who simply do not understand the need for culturally relevant pedagogy and to those who do not understand that their own cultures often overrule the cultures of those they teach, both consciously and subconsciously.  If they aren’t going to listen to me, maybe they’ll listen to a peer-reviewed journal article…you know, since us teachers are more inclined to place more value in research data than one person’s opinion.

Research recognizes the need for culturally relevant pedagogy.  Research understands the importance of setting aside one’s own beliefs in an effort to understand the needs of another culture’s beliefs.  Research supports that the best way to teach a student is to know the student.

Howard (2003) stated “teacher educators must be able to help preservice teachers critically analyze important issues such as race, ethnicity, and culture, and recognize how these important concepts shape the learning experience for many students.”  It is important to note that this understanding cannot be superficial, as in being politically correct for the sake of being politically correct. It’s about having the desire to open your mind to new cultures, beliefs and lifestyles and a willingness to accept them as equally important as your own.  It’s about truly valuing the “cultural capital” that walks into your classroom each and every day (Howard, 2003). I love that phrase, “cultural capital.”  Absolutely looooove it!  Capital is an asset.  Cultural capital means that culture is seen as an asset.  What better way to think about the diversity of our classrooms?  A room filled with cultural capital…including our own!

It is also about getting to the core of who you are by engaging in the “critical reflection” that Howard (2003) talks extensively about.  As stated in the opening quote, if you cannot understand yourself, you cannot understand your students, which, in turn, means that you cannot achieve the success that you wish to achieve with your students.  Critical reflection requires us to dig deep within ourselves to shed light on our belief systems and to be honest about what we believe and why we believe in them.

This task can be very difficult, especially if you hold beliefs that you don’t want to admit.  And, really, that’s ok.  But, to get to the core of your being, you must acknowledge they exist.  Critical reflection isn’t used as a mean to criticize your beliefs, but is used to foster a deeper understanding of those beliefs.  We have all learned what we know and believe in from sources that are important to us and through our own life experiences. Whether or not you are comfortable speaking about them openly, self-reflection is not about letting the world know or attempting to change your beliefs, it’s about engaging in honest and in-depth reflection about how your “positionality” can influence your students, both positively and negatively, and how it “can shape students’ conceptions of self” (Howard, 2003).

I often joke with my students that I am just as much a part of their families as their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins!  After all, I do see them all day, every day five days out of the week.  If we take a minute to think about that, this should speak volumes.  What kind of influence has our own families had on us?  What did they teach us and how has that molded us into the adults that we are today?  Have the people closest to us seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, yet, have continued to love us, believe in us and encourage us to achieve great things?

We have this type of influence on our students.  We can build up or break down any one of our students.  That’s how much power we have.  But, we also have to be careful that we preserve and appreciate each students’ individual cultural capital.

Once we have a full appreciation of who our students are and have reflected on how our own personal beliefs can impact our teaching, then we can truly begin to effectively teach them.  Howard (20030 stated that we must “construct pedagogical practices in ways that are culturally relevant, racially affirming, and socially meaningful.”  How motivated would our students be if they felt like their beliefs/culture/life experiences, etc. matter, are important and are worth learning about?  Just think about why you are in this program and what you hope to accomplish…


Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195–202.


Diversity in Virtual Classrooms

With more of our courses going online, I find myself struggling with creating programs and student experiences that have value across cultures, language, technology and curriculum.  From our week 1 reading, what stood out most in this area was the Howard (2003) reading. Of particular interest is the shifting perspective of the teaching population and the idea around better representing the cultural aspects of the classroom populations that the teachers teach in (p.195). This brought to mind many of the virtual programs that I manage with individuals who are across the world.

I currently run a certificate program for professional Supply Chain students who are dispersed around the world with individuals in countries like China, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. When working with these students, our professors have to find a balance within the virtual classroom that can work with such a diverse audience yet still maintain the educational standards of the program. This becomes an interesting balance for them but also for our staff as we work to assist the students with navigating through the courses and ensuring they have the tools needed for success.

One of the pieces that really stuck out to me is how much we may overlay our own ideas of the persons culture over their actions and let the stereotypes we know about the culture interfere with the students creating their own identity (Howard, 2003, p. 200). In some cases with my students, I assume the learning styles that I am used to and that our system of education will all work for them. I need to remind myself and the professors that the context that these individuals may be coming from could be quite different from what we are accustomed to. Getting a better sense of who these students are, how they learn and approach education will help us better serve these populations.

Garcia and Ortiz (2013) also forced me to pause and think through some of my actions and approaches to the virtual programs. Similar to above, the idea that intersectionality “makes possible the examination of the simultaneous interactions among race, class, gender, and (dis)ability for any individual child, family and community, as well as the interplay between these individual or group characteristics and organizational responses to them” stood out as an interesting dynamic that I had not looked at in this way (Garcia & Ortiz, 2013, p. 34).

What most stood out was this idea that there are so many interactions that go into not only who we are but how we perceive others and how our actions both take place and may be received. Within this, I was able to further draw parallels back to the work I do within higher education but also able to look across the W. P. Carey School of Business and think about how important this is in how we set up our courses, our processes for moving students through the system and the other interactions that play into graduate business student success.

I realize that I often get lost in my daily operations and interactions and forget to look more holistically at the actions and interactions within the day to day. Thinking through the research really put into perspective how we, as educational leaders, need to take a step back from time to time to see the full picture and how I can be more cognizant of my perceptions and how I present myself and my work to others.

Garcia, S.B. & Ortiz, A.A. (2013). Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research
in special education. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2),

Howard, T.C. (2003). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection,
42(3), 195- 202.

Self-Reflection and Cultural Relevance

At what point will educators be mandated to assess their own personal biases before they assess the academic abilities of their students? Tyrone C. Howard’s 2003 article, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection, truly resonates with me, as an assistant principal in a K-8 Title I elementary school. Throughout my years in the K-12 education system I have encountered the issue of educational inequity for my minority students and have often questioned what the school system can do to do create more culturally aware educators. In a diverse society we need to ensure that all of our students have access to education, which requires educators to be aware of the needs of their specific student population. I wholeheartedly believe that in order to create a school environment that meets the needs of our heterogeneous student population we must create “culturally relevant teaching practices” (Howard, 2013, p. 198). In order to make such an elaborate change we must ask our educators to go through a process of “critical reflection that challenges them to see how their positionality influences their students in either positive or negative ways” (Howard, 2013, p.198). This idea of self-reflection is required before we can begin to address an educator’s feelings about race, culture, and social class, which shape the ways they instruct their students.

As I have experienced in the past, teachers are capable of subconsciously projecting their negative concepts of culture and race onto their students on a daily basis, which can negatively impact a student’s level of academic achievement. Unfortunately, I have witnessed teachers who project personal biases onto their students leading to an awful crushing of young academic spirits. Stephen Jay Gould (1981) speaks to the idea that humans have battled with racism throughout history, in his book The Measure of Man. According to Gould, “racial prejudice may be as old as recorded human history” (p. 31). With this being said, educators need to be aware of their own possible prejudices and determine the best ways to adjust their ways of thinking as to not project any negative thoughts onto the students. As previously stated, the first step is self-reflection in order to first determine which prejudices each person possesses, allowing the educator to move towards lessening or even possibly eliminating such biases.

Although there is a clear necessity for teacher self- reflection, I continue to ask myself if teacher training programs can appropriately address the issue of honest, in-depth teacher self-reflection. Such reflection will require educators to come to terms with their own cultural identity and personal biases.Are we ready to have these difficult conversations? In order to see the change in teacher mentality, teachers will need to ask themselves challenging questions, discuss honest answers openly, and address any concerns discovered during this internal journey (Howard, 2003, p. 198). The question still remains, how will we integrate this critical self-reflection into our current teacher preparation programs and daily lives? Also, how do we determine if teachers are reflecting in an honest fashion that allows them to create teaching practices that are more culturally relevant? These are questions that we will have to address within our educational system immediately in order to ensure that our students are receiving an excellent and culturally relevant education.

In the United States we have a very diverse population, which affects our ability to give all students access an excellent education. We must devise ways to allow all students to access culturally relevant curriculum. In order for us to determine if a teacher is being effective in their classroom we need a way to appropriately assess a teacher’s efficacy. Leading to the question: How can we accurately assess a teacher’s value in our K-12 education system? According to Pauler and Amrein-Beardsley’s 2013 article, we must have random assignment of students in each classroom in order to analyze assessment scores by means of value-added analyses and interpretations. “Value added models (VAMs) are used to measure changes in student achievement on large-scaled standardized test scores from year to year” (Paufler and Amrein-Beardsley, 2013, p. 1). This measurement system depends on random assignment of students, which is not the case in the United States, so biases are inevitable in such a test score analysis technique. With this being said, do we need a better way to determine the quality of teachers or are we able to counteract the biases that exist?


Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher

                      reflection, 42(3), 195­202.

Paufler, N. A. & Amrein­Beardsley, A. (2013). The random assignment of students into

                   elementary classrooms: Implications for value­added analyses and interpretations.                                 

                   American Education Research Journal, 51(2), 328­362.