Native Tribal Scholars: Building an Academic Community

By J. Cedric Woods

When I first started as interim director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies (INENAS) based at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I was given three studies that broadly identified specific needs and disparities of Native people in the region. These studies looked at demographic data provided by the U.S. Census, tribes and surveys of regional tribes and Native American nonprofits. The findings were clear, and, for me—a Native American from the Eastern seaboard—no surprise. With a few exceptions, most Native communities and individuals lagged behind the general population in terms of educational attainment, economic status and health. In plain language, self-identified Native people in New England are less likely to have college degrees and more likely to hold lower-paying jobs, live shorter lives and suffer from more chronic diseases such as diabetes than their non-Native neighbors.

Given that I was at an institution of higher education, my immediate thought was to do what I could to build collaborations with tribes to help our Native college students. However, when I looked at what resources are most robust at UMass Boston, and at some of the greatest needs among the Native population, focusing on pre-college students made more sense. Although no study existed specifically looking at the educational needs of Native youth in Massachusetts, the data available from public sources confirmed the need for a pre-collegiate program designed to meet the needs of Native students. Some of these statistics for 2005 through 2008:

  • The percentage of Native adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher is extremely low21% compared of adults age 25 or older in Barnstable County, compared with 34% of all county residents in that age group, and 18% for adults age 25 or older in Suffolk County, compared with 32% of all adults in that age group countywide.
  • Nearly a quarter (22.5%) of Barnstable County and a third (31%) of Suffolk County Native Americans have less than a 12th grade education, according to Census 2000 data, the most recent available by county.
  • Over the past three years, more than a quarter of Native students (28%) in the Mashpee (Mass.) Public School District failed to graduate from high school on time; of these, 14.7% dropped out, compared with 9.9% of Mashpee students generally who did not complete high school, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education.
  • Fully half (50.2%) of Native students did not graduate with their ninth-grade cohort in Boston Public Schools (BPS), andf over a quarter (27.8%) dropped out of school, compared with 41% of BPS students generally who did not graduate with their ninth-grade cohort and 20.4% who dropped out.

Additionally, many Native students lack academic role models, access to support that address their specific needs and culturally relevant coursework.

After we identified what we thought we could do (and a potential funding source), I reached out to the local Native communities whom I thought would be most interested and also had access to the largest numbers of Native students in Massachusetts. These communities, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe (MWT) and the urban Indian community in the Greater Boston area, represented by the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB), became formal partners with Academic Support Services at UMass Boston and INENAS in developing the proposal. Submitted by the MWT in 2010, the eligible entity in our partnership, Native Tribal Scholars (NTS) was funded for approximately $1.2 million  over four years by the Office of Indian Education in the U.S. Department of Education. Then, the real work began.

Working as a collaboration has benefits—and challenges. Developing job descriptions, forming search committees, conducting interviews and then hiring requires more flexibility and commitment when multiple organizational cultures, geography and deadlines are in play. However, the bonus is that there is greater buy-in from the partners if they are engaged in all major aspects of making the project work. Together, MWT, NAICOB and UMass Boston selected administrative, instructional and residential staff, recruited kids and directly engaged with the program.

Given the serious need for the program, our goals are ambitious.  Through the residential and academic year components, the Native Scholars Program will significantly improve the achievement levels of Native students participating in the program. Our goal is to serve 60 students annually (counting both academic year and residential programs). We expect that at least 90% of participants will successfully complete a rigorous high school program of study and at least 95% will graduate with their ninth-grade cohort—a significantly higher rate than of Native students in Mashpee (72%) and in the BPS (50%). We also expect that 80% of NSP graduates will enroll in postsecondary education after high school, and 80% of them will attain a bachelor’s degree; targets which, again, are significantly higher than the rates currently attained by Native students—only 63% of Native Americans in Massachusetts planned to go to college. While data on the college graduation rates of Native students are not available, the rate for BPS students is 35.5%

As we close out our first year, we served 40 students through our summer residential program, surpassing our plan to serve 30 in the summer. The 40 residential program students participated in a six-week intensive residential program with Native-focused classes and workshops in language arts, math, science, public speaking, tribal sovereignty, media/film and Native culture.  The youths took part also in a weekly college and career planning workshop designed for Native American students. Our program participants range from grades  8 to 11 and were from the Mohawk, MicMac, Cherokee, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag tribes. Our staff included Snohomish, Innuit, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Chickasaw and Lumbee teachers, tutors, residential advisors and film production consultants. The students engaged in various field trips designed to connect them to their cultural heritage, including a walking tour of Plymouth and kayaking on Lake Cochituate. The program culminated in a Family Day event to showcase the students’ learning and to encourage their parents and the community to actively support the young people’s academic goals.

Due to the federal and academic calendar conflicts (school year starts in September, award notifications in October, with no ability to access funds until November) and challenges in recruiting staff, we were not able to start our academic year program planned for October/November 2010.  Now, with our first summer and all its lessons behind us, we are well-poised to begin our first academic year. We are recruiting tutors, additional students, and will be holding monthly academic and cultural workshops and trips, and provide participants with tutoring and academic advising services. Additionally, we will provide training for personnel at the students’ schools on how best to meet the unique academic and social needs of Native youth. Our academic year began with our students participating in the construction of a fish weir on Thompson Island.

Achieving our ambitious goals of increasing the students’ preparation for college will be measurable upon their high school graduation, most specifically, whether they attend and successfully graduate from baccalaureate programs. We already know some short-term goals were met. Youth from varied tribal backgrounds met and significantly interacted with one another in both academic and cultural contexts. Some of our youth had Native teachers and other academic role models for the first time. Many, according to their parents, demonstrated increased maturity as a result of the residential experience. Many developed new friendships and connection with other Native youth, which in some cases, was their first experience taking classes with other Native students.

Stronger connections between university programs and the Native community were clearly formed. UMass Boston staff served as class and workshop instructors. Native community members played an active role in opening and closing ceremonies, cultural workshops and presentations.

At the Georges Island Native Heritage Festival, where the Native Tribal Scholars served as hosts, dancers and drummers, as well as part of the clean-up detail, family and community members came out from the tribes to support their youth (made possible by the National Parks Service and Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation). Many of the adult Native performers at the festival referenced the importance of the positive youth engagement in this event and in this type of program. It was clear that Native Tribal Scholars is now viewed as an important community resource by many Massachusetts Native people and they are invested in its success. We look forward to continuing this relationship for many years to come.

J. Cedric Woods is director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Related: A Different Path Forward by J. Cedric Woods and The Dark Ages of Education and a New Hope by Donna Loring.


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