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In the spring of 2015, a series of historic gatherings were held in Bismarck, North Dakota between elder leaders of the Native American community and representatives from both the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) and the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. These gatherings ultimately formed the basis of the North Dakota Native American Essential Understandings (NDNAEU) project, which has the stated goal to “increase learning, understanding and well-being among all North Dakota students, educators and communities.”.

Four North Dakota tribes – Spirit Lake Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, MHA Nation and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians – all took part in the gatherings, which covered an eclectic mix of topics that included identity, education, spirituality, kinship, the importance/sacredness of children, humor, clan structure, original values, tribal governance, healing, values, The Land and history and storytelling as it pertains to Native American culture.

“Having had the elders develop the NDNAEU makes it much more authentic &ndash not something that just comes out of a textbook,” says Lucy Fredericks, the NDDPI’s Director of Indian/Multicultural Education. “It’s very important to have their voices heard and for all of us to learn from them.”

The NDNAEU was a major priority for State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, who was inspired by similar initiatives in Montana and South Dakota entitled “Indian Education for All,” elements of which were incorporated into the development of the project. Seven principle elements of the NDNAEU were ultimately determined in the developmental Phase I of the NDNAEU: Sacred Relatives; Learning & Storytelling; Sharing & Generosity; Sense of Humor; Tribal Policies, Treaties & Sovereignty; Native Contributions and Native Identity.

Phase II of the NDNAEU involved prominent North Dakota educators developing K-12 lesson plans based on the Essential Understandings, aligning with the resource document and incorporating elements from several content areas and disciplines. The rollout and implementation of these lesson plans took place during Phase III of the project (2017–18), with schools and classrooms throughout North Dakota integrating the Essential Understandings into their academic curriculums and on-site professional development programs. Phase IV (2018–present) of the project involves ongoing implementation of the Essential Understandings as well as the launching of pilot schools in the state capital of Bismarck.

Select NDDPI staff members partnered with REL Central on developing a comprehensive evaluation plan for the NDNAEU as part of Phase III of the project. The evaluation plan includes extensive data collection and analysis as well as the creation of a logic model, the identification of next steps and the development of an overall communications plan.

Effective evaluation is an integral component of the Essential Understandings, as it will provide the NDDPI with a more dynamic understanding of the implementation process and resultant student outcomes in addition to determining the overall effectiveness of the project as it pertains to the long-term goals of both the state and REL Central’s American Indian Education Research Alliance (AIERA).

A goal of this alliance is to promote culturally responsive teaching and learning for American Indian students – a clear objective of the Essential Understandings. The NDNAEU also aligns with the AIERA’s long-term goal of improving education outcomes for Native American students, who, despite recent gains, continue to trail their non-Native counterparts in North Dakota in graduation rates.

The average graduation rate among Native American students in the state rose by 15 percent from 2011 to 2018. There remains a significant achievement disparity however, as Native Americans’ graduation rates statewide still trail those of non-Natives by 16 percent according to the most recent data available. Reducing this disparity is part of North Dakota’s PK-12 Educational Strategic Vision Framework, and projects such as the NDNAEU are a big part of making that vision a reality as the importance of cultural inclusion in learning curriculums cannot be overstated.