Campaign launched to address abysmal Indian attendance rates
When Roxanne Broden's daughter started school, Broden didn't understand how important the first years are. It was just kindergarten, what was the big deal if her daughter missed some days? Broden was young herself, she had her daughter when she was a teen. Now her kid is older, and she worries that those early absences will impact her girl's academic future.
Last year, only 34 percent of American Indian students in Minneapolis attended school 95 percent of the time or better, missing fewer than nine days. That's less than any other demographic. At the mostly Indian Anishinabe Academy only 27 percent met that benchmark.
Research says attendance is the single greatest indicator for school success, especially for American Indian kids. The Minneapolis district tracked students in the class of 2011 who had attended school less than 90 percent of the time during their 12-year school career. Only 40 percent of those students were on track to graduate. White students who missed that much school still did okay - 75 percent were on track to graduate.
In response, a group of folks from MIGIZI communications, Phillips Indian Educators, Minneapolis Public Schools, Hennepin County, the Division of Indian Work, BrandLab and Little Earth began meeting in the winter of 2011 to talk about what American Indians can do to help themselves get to school.
The group has lots of ideas - flyering at Indian month celebrations, an ad campaign to be designed by American Indian teens attending MIGIZI's summer program, and a kick-off celebration in the fall - but their most exciting idea involves building a network of parents who could help each other get their kids out the door. Families with good attendance would be grouped with struggling families, to form a sort of kinship system. Parents would make wake-up phone calls or give each other's kids rides if they missed the bus.
The idea goes back to the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child. This village is a community that historically had to protect their children from a public education system that did not have their interests at heart. Attendance to government-run schools was never part of Minnesota Indian culture. That and all the other things that come with poverty are behind American Indian attendance records. Of 350 kids at Anishinabe, 90 are homeless or highly mobile.
Parents who work late or who struggle with alcoholism or drug addiction may have trouble getting up to put their kids on the bus in the morning. If they're young or if they had a poor experience in school growing up, they may not see the value in getting kids to school on time every day.
Not everybody owns a car. Anishinabe is a magnet school, so some parents living across town have no way to transport their kids if they miss the bus.
School administrators couldn't say for sure what kids do when they're not at school, but they surmised that they probably watch TV or play video games. Maybe babysit. "I don't think a lot of our kids get out the way we probably did when we were younger," said social worker Lisa Gerring. "Parents will say they, 'I don't want them out. It's too dangerous.'"
The immediate consequence can be a visit to the county attorney's office. After nine absences, parents get a School Team Attendance Review, known as a STAR meeting. In other words, child protection gets involved. Two years ago Hennepin County's Be at School program funded Patty Thunder Hawk, from the Division of Indian Work, to work full-time at bringing down the number of unexcused absences at Anishinabe.
This year, parents get a phone call every day their child fails to show up. The effort greatly reduced the number of STAR meetings this year. But an excused absence or a tardy arrival still means time away from learning.
Danielle Grant, director of the district Indian Education department said building personal relationships with families can make a difference. She wants to place more "check and connect" mentors in schools, who would check in regularly with chronically absent students. That personal touch is important, especially for older kids who are in charge of getting themselves to school. It's the relationship piece that makes the campaign group think their buddy system idea will work.
Broden still struggles with attendance. Her son at Anishinabe has heart problems and gets tired easily, so he stays home sometimes. She doesn't totally trust the school. She wishes more of the staff knew her kids by name. She's skeptical about any attendance campaign. "It's deeper than just getting to school," she said.
Anishinabe principal Steve Couture is more optimistic. He's seen a lot of attendance schemes come and go. "I think it's the thing we haven't tried, is a common community voice."