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Special Feature: interTRIBAL Immersion Program

graphic showing hands and graduation cap

Practicing Native Culture, Building Identity, Fostering Achievement

By Lisa Rummler | January 1, 2019

GREAT FALLS, MONTANA—The Paris Gibson Center, an alternative high school in Great Falls, Montana, does not use bells to mark the beginning or end of classes because the loud ringing can be a trigger for some students.

Instead, when students in the school's interTRIBAL immersion program first arrive at their classroom, they enter a calm, quiet space—and they are invited to participate in smudging, a ritual that involves burning sacred plants and fanning the smoke.

"It's a cultural purifier, cleansing of the spirit, cleansing of everything that you're bringing into the space," says Marcy Cobell, director of Indian Education at Great Falls Public Schools. "For a lot of our students, it's a way for them to start their day [and] start over."

After students who have chosen to smudge have done so, all the immersion students gather in a circle for Connections.

"We just talk about how our night went, if we have any plans for after school, anything that's exciting going on," says Jordann Lankford-Forster, the primary teacher for the immersion program. "It's just a way to enter a school day in a positive way."

 Lessons Learned

Build your community

Having circle time is also based on research related to communication and restorative justice, according to Cobell.

Smudging and Connections are two rituals at the core of the interTRIBAL immersion program, which incorporates—and celebrates—various elements of Native students' cultures.

The program, which started less than two years ago, has already had a positive impact on participating students' sense of belonging and identity, as well as their academic achievement.

"Coming here has just changed my life a lot," says Michael Spearson, who will be the first person in his family to graduate from high school. "I'm just really amazed at how far I've come."

Another immersion student, Tierra Jorgensen, said she never thought she would graduate from high school but that she is going to be done early. She attributes her success to the program, especially the sense of community it has created for her and her classmates.

"We're like a family; we're together every day," Jorgensen says. "We just kind of know each other now—we're comfortable. At the other schools, I didn't talk to anyone, [but] I can talk to everyone here."

Driven by Data

 Lessons Learned

Dare to do things differently

The genesis for the interTRIBAL immersion program was a student-led event. A former academic achievement coach encouraged American Indian students to organize a club, which they called interTRIBAL Strong.

This ultimately led to the students hosing a statewide forum on Indian Education for Native students.

"The year after that, an idea was hatched from some of the synergy around the student forum to provide another avenue for some of our [Native] students who maybe weren't doing quite as well," says Tom Moore, assistant superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools. "The idea [was to provide] students with a safe, nurturing classroom environment with teachers who understood the cultural significance of their heritage—and the way that learning and teaching maybe needed to be approached differently for a lot of our American Indian students."

Staff members examined districtwide attendance and graduation data. They found that 35 to 50 Native students were not showing up on a regular basis, were struggling academically, and were not on track to graduate.

Ultimately, these educators approached Tammy Lacey, superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools, with a request to form a program based on four core cultural values: relationships, responsibility, reciprocity, and redistribution.

Lacey says the district always uses data to determine whether goals are being met and what needs to happen for students.

 Lessons Learned

Rely on your board of directors


"If the data are showing us that this isn't working, then we need to stop doing that, and we need to think of other things to do," she says. "Pushing ourselves to think about things differently, thinking outside the box, [trying] new things—I think it's really important to give people permission to do that."

With support from Lacey and Moore, the plan was presented to the district's board, which ultimately approved the interTRIBAL immersion program.

"The board said, ‘Let's try something new. Let's see if it works and then celebrate [if it does],'" Lacey says. "And they were excited to have that celebration and to see it happening for our students."

Guiding Principles

According to Drew Uecker, principal of the Paris Gibson Education Center, relationships are first tenet of both the school and the interTRIBAL immersion program.

"Everything we do is based on relationships—without relationships, we're not going to be successful with any kid," he says. "But we absolutely had to build that piece first. And for some of our kids, that's still a process that continues. Healthy, functional relationships are hard to develop for a lot of our kids, but particularly for some of our Native American students that have [experienced] so much trauma."

Uecker says the second important tenet of the immersion program is that "you have to earn what you earn." That is, success takes hard work—which takes time and trust.

In terms of academic success, students in the immersion program follow the same curriculum and have the same benchmarks as their peers throughout the district. They also take the same common assessments to demonstrate proficiency.

"We're not setting the bar lower for our American Indian students," Lankford-Forster says. "We're just finding a different way for them to reach the bar, on level with their peers."

The Importance of Incorporating Culture Into the Program

"The cultural piece is something that [the students] haven't gotten in other classes, and they're very interested in it," Lankford-Forster says. "It's an engagement that I haven't seen before, and it's really exciting for them because they are being acknowledged and their cultural history is being acknowledged."

This is especially critical for Native students who do not live on reservations, which is the case for most students in the immersion program.

"On reservations, you have a consolidated area, a concentrated group of people who are practicing and living their culture every day," Lankford-Forster says. "But when you get off the reservation, it's more dispersed; you don't really have these points of contact to go to. And for them to be able to learn about their culture, practice their culture, engage in [cultural] activities—it's really done a lot for their personal identity."

Student Marlene Blackman says what she has learned in the immersion program has made her think differently about her future.

"I feel like I've learned a lot about my culture, and it makes me want to look more into it and try to help my reservation someday," she says.

Some of the cultural activities offered in the immersion program include going on bison hunts and doing archery once a week.

Regarding the latter, Lankford-Forster says it was a way to rethink gym class. It also served as a jumping-off point for cross-curricular activities, such as discussing speed and velocity in math and science classes.

Similarly, after participating in bison hunts, students cooked the meat in culinary arts class and learned about multiplying fractions in math class.

"We try to incorporate as many core classes as possible into one lesson so that it's really relevant and meaningful for the students," Lankford-Forster says.

Dugan Coburn, a career advisor who works with many immersion students, says he has noticed a higher level of student engagement as the program has progressed.

"When they first started, they were very quiet and standoffish," he says. "Now, when I see the kids, they're outgoing, and they know a lot about the culture. Instead of letting things happen, they'll step in and say, ‘Oh, no, that's not how you should be doing that. Our culture is being respectful to this.' So, it's a big turnaround that way."

Meeting Students Where They Are

For science teacher Jonathan Logan, the cultural activities offered in the immersion program inform and guide his lessons plans.

"Our Native American students have gone on many field trips. We're growing tobacco and sweetgrass. We hunted bison. Basically, the science sells itself," he says. "It isn't a different science—it's the same science. It's just doing things [differently]."

In addition, Logan says the success of the immersion program's approach to science is based on getting to know his students rather than foisting the program on them.

"I think one of the biggest things as a science teacher, and as a teacher in general, is that instead of designing a program [and fitting] Native American students or White students or other students into that program, it's better that we see where they are. We go into their program, and then we see what we can learn and what we can do to take where they're headed even further."

Jose Rodriguez, an immersion student says participating in the immersion program and having teachers accept him for who he is has made all the difference.

"I came here with about two credits to my name,” he says. “Now I’m on my way to graduation. It feels wonderful. It feels like I finally accomplished something in my life."