The challenges facing Native American students and parents when it comes to education are well documented. According to U.S. News and World Report, 67 percent of Native American students graduated high school in the 2014-15 term, compared to the national average, which was 80 percent.

The challenges facing Native American students and parents when it comes to education are well documented. According to U.S. News and World Report, 67 percent of Native American students graduated high school in the 2014-15 term, compared to the national average, which was 80 percent.

There are, of course, multiple reasons for the discrepancy, not the least of which is poverty and the dark history of relations between white settlers and Native Americans. Broken treaties, boarding schools and the fallout from failed programs over the years, among many other factors, has led to the current situation here and around the country.

Dr. Jared Schlenker, Central Middle School principal and director of the Native American Education Advisory Committee (NAEAC), says that the organization works to address some of the issues students face.

“We have a survey that we do every fall, (which is) a needs assessment to ask parents what areas students are struggling in or are doing well (in),” Schlenker said. “The first question we ask is, ‘Does your child feel welcome in Devils Lake Public Schools?’”

Schlenker estimates that the district has “about 30 percent” Native American students, and federal guidelines mandate that schools with a certain percentage of Native students are required to have a committee such as the NAEAC.

The NAEAC is comprised of Native American parents and a student representative, and the goal is to help students not only feel welcome, but thrive in school.

To reach that goal, Schlenker says that teachers and administrators have a duty to build relationships with all of the students that walk in the door.

“Any time a Native American student walks into a school and sees 98 percent white folks teaching, I think teachers need to be aware of that,” Schlenker said. “We need to try to make those strong connections with students.”

Of course, a school and its administration can only do so much. Many of the issues that are unique to Native Americans are outside of the committee’s influence, such as high poverty rates. The latest data made available by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the poverty rate on Spirit Lake Nation was 45.3 percent between 2005-2009.

The poverty rate statewide during that time was 12.3 percent.

Though the numbers may have changed somewhat since then, Schlenker says that both the district and the state are doing what they can to improve educational outcomes for Native Americans.

“The state is really looking to increase the involvement of Native American students and parents. We need to do a better job of reaching them,” Schlenker said.

One way the state is approaching the issue is the development of a curriculum that is specific to the Native American experience. Schlenker reports that the district has also benefited from a grant from Spirit Lake Casino, which he says is being used to supply materials to advance the curriculum.

“We have received some additional grant funding,” Schlenker said. “The last two years we’ve received $5,000 from the Spirit Lake Casino specifically for the purpose of gathering Native American literature into our libraries, as well as trying to support our Native American curriculums.”

Another area the NAEAC is involved with is the provision of technology to Native students.

“Technology is another piece we want to make sure our Native American students are provided with,” Schlenker said. “If they don’t have it at home, what can we do at the school to provide it for them?”

The district and Native American parents and students in the region face steep educational challenges on several fronts. The website Think Progress reports that while other ethnic minority groups across the country have seen performances rise since 2005, the performance of Native students has stayed flat or actually declined.

“Native American students, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, have seen virtually no improvement in their academic achievement gap at the same time that other minority groups have experienced improvements, a new report from The Education Trust finds,” according to the site.

Think Progress also reports that “in 2011, just 18 percent of Native fourth graders were proficient or advanced in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), while 42 percent of white fourth graders had reached those levels.”

The numbers are certainly daunting, and one district in one city can only do so much. However, Schlenker says that the NAEAC is working hard to address educational discrepancies.

“I think we have a great group of adults on (the committee) right now that give a lot of input,” Schlenker said. “We have a student representative as well, and our main theme is when we have those meetings is, ‘What can we do to increase our parent involvement? What can we do to increase students’ desire to be in school?’ Because another piece is the attendance. You have to be there (to learn).”