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Inaugural cohort of Native American-language teachers completes master's degrees, now pursuing state teaching licenses

The 12 graduates of this unique St. Thomas program received an eagle feather along with their diploma last June. They now are headed for teaching jobs.

Minneapolis, Minn. -- A dozen Minnesota educators have completed an inaugural University of St. Thomas program designed to help American Indian students academically and to preserve endangered Dakota and Ojibwe languages.

The unique teacher-education program, offered by the university’s School of Education, is called “Canku Kaġupi/Miikina,” which refers to “making a pathway” toward language proficiency.

The 12 graduates received a St. Thomas master’s degree last June and now are completing the last of a regiment of tests required by the state to receive their Minnesota teaching licenses.

The majority of the graduates are Dakota or Ojibwe speakers and already are hired to work in primary schools in the Twin Cities area, including a new Native American language-immersion school scheduled to open next fall.

The intense, 18-month program was held at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis. The program provides women and men who have been doing some teaching in their Native language, and who hold a bachelor’s degree, with the training and master’s degree to become licensed elementary school teachers. The licensed teachers can then work in language-immersion programs

“Our first graduates received a degree and, as a special honor, an eagle feather,” said Dr. Sally Hunter, a member of the White Earth Nation and the program’s founder. Hunter has been on the faculty of the St. Thomas School of Education for the past 21 years.

The U.S. Department of Education reported in 2011 that the graduation rate of Minnesota Native American high school students was 42 percent, half the graduation rate for their white peers. Minnesota is one of eight states whose graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native students in less than 60 percent.

Hunter notes that Native American language-immersion teaching models, where all subjects are taught in a Native language, have dramatically increased the performance of American Indian students in other parts of the country.

Programs in Alaska, Oklahoma, Hawaii and in indigenous communities across the world have reported great success with language-immersion teaching programs, which Hunter said restore and revitalize culture and language while creating substantially more meaningful and educational success for students and their families.

“We created the program in response to what is an emergency situation,” Hunter said.

She cited a 2011 report from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council which found that “Dakota and Ojibwe languages are in critical condition.”

“The languages are in danger of being lost,” she said. “A few excellent Dakota and Ojibwe language-immersion pre-school programs, and even fewer elementary schools, are developing or operating in areas with high American Indian populations in Minnesota. However, there are very few licensed Native language-immersion teachers to staff them.”

According to the 2011 council report, “Language immersion programs are crippled by a lack of trained teachers. Virtually nobody who speaks Ojibwe or Dakota as a first language has standard teaching credentials.”

The report’s summary of recommendations states, “Language revitalization has the potential to make a positive impact on efforts to bridge the educational achievement gap between Minnesota’s American Indian students and non-American Indian students, among other benefits.” The report calls for more teacher-licensure programs that prepare teachers for language-immersion teaching in Ojibwe and Dakota, seeing these as critical world languages.

“These licensed teachers will positively impact thousands of students throughout their lifetimes, revitalizing the language and culture while impacting critical disparities in education for American Indians wherever Dakota and Ojibwe are spoken,” Hunter said.

As one graduate wrote on her evaluation of the program, “This license means I will be able to teach and pass on language, culture and knowledge to the youth of my people. Then, my daughter and future grandchildren will know completely who they are, where they came from and where they’re going. I will not need an English-speaking teacher in the room with me, underestimating the intelligence of our indigenous children.”

The Canku Kaġupi/Miikina Native Language Immersion Teacher Licensure Program was created with support from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in partnership with St. Thomas. The program also received support from the St. Paul Foundation, Mardag Foundation, F.R. Bigelow Foundation, Tiwahe Foundation (affiliated with the Grotto Foundation), Red Lake Nation and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Hunter said a second cohort is planned, but a start date has not been set. “We will first need to secure financial support, and we plan to conduct some additional research before launching the next cycle,” she said. For more information, or to support the program, contact Dr. Sally Hunter at (651) 962-4420 or Dave Elmstrom, University of St. Thomas Development Office, at (651-962-6956).


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