The Bismarck School District did the right thing this school year when it added two cultural responsive coordinators.
The coordinators, Donovan Lambert and Sashay Schettler, work one-on-one with Native American students and their families to help them get used to the school system. There can be difficulties when they move from a reservation to a more urban setting. There also can be cultural issues for Native students who have been lifelong Bismarck residents.
As reporter Blair Emerson noted in a Monday story, Native Americans make up about 9% of the student population in Bismarck. Native students are disciplined in school at a far higher rate than white students, according to federal data.
In 2015, about 33% of Bismarck students who received out-of-school suspensions were Native, and about 67% of Bismarck students expelled were Native, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection.
Nine percent is a good share of the student population so it makes sense to hire the coordinators. The Tribune Editorial Board believes the number of students expelled is too high. The coordinators don’t just work with Native students. They help teachers develop relationships with students, raise awareness about the Native American population in the state and work with the overall student population.
Schettler grew up in Bismarck and knows from personal experience the challenges of being a Native American student. "For me, personally, I felt that in a lot of instances that they (teachers) didn't care about where I came from and additional cultural information, which resulted in a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunication," she told Emerson. As a result, Schettler supports more culturally responsive training for teachers.
Bismarck Superintendent Jason Hornbacher said the coordinators are one way to address the issues facing students and teachers.
Schools must deal with a variety of societal problems that don’t end at the classroom door. If we want to provide a quality education for all our students we can’t ignore issues that threaten their ability to learn. Schools are seeking ways to help kids who are coming to school hungry, who are using drugs or have parents fighting addiction, who are victims of bullying or racism. It’s not necessarily what educators had in mind when they chose a career. However, unless we deal with these issues our schools will fall into decay.
To the credit of schools across the state action is being taken.
Schools in Bismarck offer various mental health supports for students, starting in the elementary schools. This school year the Bismarck district launched a pilot study using Megan Kraft, a clinical counselor with The Village Family Service Center, who has an office in Bismarck High School. Kraft was hired to provide students with access to therapy.
Ryan Johnson, assistant principal at BHS, hopes they can make the program a fixture at the school. The school district also hopes to expand the program to the two other high schools in the district.
Last year the Bismarck School Board approved $1.4 million to hire more staff, including 31 aides, a part-time social worker, two school psychologists, and fund other mental health services.
Across the state schools are using federal dollars to improve school safety and to address behavioral health issues. North Dakota school districts received $3.7 million in federal funds for security measures and for behavioral and mental health services this school year.
State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler also has put a focus on mental health and safety issues.
These issues will require a long-term effort by local and state officials. The problems can’t be ignored and these are important first steps.