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For Dean Dauphinais, superintendent of Warwick Public School on the Spirit Lake Nation reservation, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s (NDDPI) Native American Needs Assessment asked relevant questions to address the needs of his school over the years, but what it and the action plan it informed needed was broader input from Native American stakeholders.

As one of the tribal education stakeholders brought in by NDDPI to provide feedback for changes to the assessment made in 2017, Dauphinais said that the decision to incorporate greater Native input in the process was a great first step toward developing a more inclusive process with more relevant solutions.

“You know, we kind of say this under our breath a little bit,” said Dauphinais, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who grew up on the Spirit Lake Nation reservation, “but it is about time that somebody asks us what our needs are instead of others telling us what we need.”

NDDPI developed the needs assessment to collect administrator input on the challenges facing students at 29 schools with large Native American student populations. The department uses that information to develop a yearly action plan to address student needs.

In 2017, NDDPI chose to expand the questions and the range of educators to whom the assessment was administered, and it partnered with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Central to encourage discussions, make better use of survey data, and help develop a plan to put the survey information to use. In addition, NDDPI added the four largest districts in the state–Bismarck School District 1, Fargo Public Schools, Mandan Public Schools, and Grand Forks Public Schools–as recipients of the assessment.

Dauphinais participated in a collaborative process with other tribal educators. Stakeholders from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation; Spirit Lake Nation; Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians; and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation took part in a focus group in which they offered suggestions for the assessment and discussed other Native American education needs. Using that input, NDDPI completed changes to the assessment, which was administered in early September 2017.

Enhancements to the survey included a broader range of questions and, perhaps most significantly, the inclusion of teachers and paraprofessionals in taking the assessment.

Including teachers and paraprofessionals from Warwick, a school with more than 250 students, in the assessment was important to Dauphinais because they often have a greater understanding of students’ individual needs and learning processes.

Like many school administrators serving Native American populations, Dauphinais did not see the assessment or its action plan as the sole solution to addressing the systemic issues, such as extreme poverty, that exist outside of school walls and contribute to issues like high dropout rates and absenteeism. Instead, he saw it as a means to highlight specific needs that, if properly addressed in a subsequent action plan, could allow administrators and teachers the opportunity to create an engaging learning environment that can help kids want to stay inside the classroom.

One of the ways Dauphinais would like to see that happen is through increased resources put toward the inclusion of culturally relevant lesson plans in classroom curriculum, a desire affirmed by other administrators since NDDPI began administering the survey. He explained that, after working with teachers at Warwick to integrate students’ culture and heritage into their studies, the results have been noticeable. For example, students are lining up to take part in Native language courses because, as Dauphinais puts it, “they are interested in learning the language because it is part of who they are.”

In addition to the language classes he encouraged, Dauphinais has been working closely with teachers to further infuse culturally relevant information into history, social studies, and science classes. It is a move he believes will keep kids engaged in their community and in the classroom. Dauphinais says new teachers at Warwick may often see the addition of cultural materials to their lesson plans as “just another hoop to jump through.” However, he hopes that through taking and reviewing the assessment they will see just how important teaching Native American students about their history and traditions is to earning student participation.

“I think that the more and more we include teachers in the assessment and the things that we do with our native language and culture the more understanding that they will have of its importance,” Dauphinais said.

Despite Dauphinais’s favorable outlook on the assessment, he felt that Native educator input was necessary in the development of the action plan. In 2018, Dauphinais will have the opportunity to be a part of a group of tribal education representatives who will comment on the changes to the assessments, its action plan, and the resources it proposes. NDDPI, once again supported by REL Central, will use input from that discussion to make adjustments to both the assessment and plan as a step toward enhancing the process and ultimately improving Native American student outcomes.

“I am looking for solutions that will make us a better school and help us provide a better education for our kids,” said Dauphinais.