Winnebago schools work to close achievement gap
WINNEBAGO, Neb. | A change in attitude toward education is credited with helping students in the Winnebago Tribe close the academic achievement gap with their Nebraska peers.
Winnebago Public School officials and tribal leaders are making a larger effort to get the community involved in students’ education or to include culture and language in the classroom. That effort has led to gains in student performance.
One of the biggest improvements in 2011 came for fourth-graders. Nearly 21 percent of the students were deemed proficient at reading according to the state’s assessment test. Nearly 6 percent of those same students were proficient in 2010.
Comparing those results with state averages, though, shows a significant achievement gap, said Winnebago Director of Programs Cheryl Burrell. According to state data, 75 percent of fourth-grade students were proficient in reading in 2011.
Data for 2012 is not available.
“We do celebrate the small gains, but we still have work to do,” Burrell said. “Growth and change is a challenging process.”
A change in the tribe’s hiring policy has helped push the process along. The tribe no longer hires employees who don’t have a high school diploma, Burrell said. That has forced students who want to work for the tribe-owned WinnaVegas Casino to buckle down in the classroom.
The tribe’s dropout age -- the age at which a student can legally leave school -- was also increased to 18. The state’s dropout age is 16.
The tribe also hired a truancy officer to address attendance problems, Burrell said. In one case, the tribe bought a student an alarm clock.
The efforts have improved the tribe’s graduation rates, but an achievement gap exists there, too.
According to the Nebraska Department of Education, Winnebago’s graduation rate was 63 percent in 2007. The rate increased to 86 percent in 2011. The state’s graduation rate in 2011 was 90 percent.
Elementary school Principal Tiffanny Heese said among the biggest obstacles to graduation for Winnebago students are teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse.
In a district with a 99 percent American Indian population, it can be difficult for predominantly white teachers to break through the cultural barrier to talk about problems at home, Heese said. Only two Winnebago teachers are American Indian.
The school often relies on the community to help teachers learn about the culture and implement the tribe’s HoChunk language in the classroom, and to talk about living a healthier lifestyle.
The speakers are often the students’ friends, neighbors or relatives.
“It’s hard to relate sometimes with students if you’re not from the same culture or community,” Heese said. “These are not just presentations, these community members make connections.”
The tribe also has a Ho-Chunk Renaissance language and culture program that visits the school throughout the year.
Program Director Helene Lincoln said students need to have a connection to their cultural identity to succeed. The program also helps the teachers learn the culture and language and incorporate it into their curriculum.
“Education studies have shown the best students are those that feel good about themselves,” Lincoln said. “This shows them who they are and shows them their culture.”