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School gets high marks for American Indian achievement

Phil Beadle (center), American Indian education teacher at Churchill Elementary School in Cloquet, works with (from left) Jordan Diver, Darrell Reynolds-Couture and Markis King during a math intervention class Thursday. (Bob King / / 2
Fellow student Damara Allen smiles as Hailey Carlson thrusts the answer they worked out to a math problem to the class taught by Phil Beadle at Churchill Elementary School in Cloquet on Thursday. (Bob King / / 2

American Indian students at Cloquet's Churchill Elementary School often far outranked the Minnesota average for American Indians on last year's state exams.

Those results put the school at No. 2 on MinnCAN's list of the top-achieving in the state for American Indian achievement. The St. Paul-based education reform advocacy group researched schools across the state about American Indian education before releasing its report, "Native American Student Achievement," last month. One part of that research included visiting schools that had positive results, said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN.

Calling Churchill "one of the best schools in the state" for its dedication, Sellers said he noticed a commitment to learning that he didn't often see at other schools.

"They took two minutes to celebrate the school and got back to work," he said, of his visit.

School officials credit the use of test data to target students' strengths and weaknesses as the key to scores that have risen dramatically in the last few years.

That began, in part, when the school instituted "block scheduling."

There are times during the day when students from all grade levels leave class together to receive extra help or enrichment. Whether it's for special education, an advanced reading group or Indian education, everyone leaves at once reducing any stigma.

Before the new scheduling, students were singled out for services, said Phil Beadle, the licensed Indian education teacher at Churchill.

"Now, half the class might get up and go," he said.

Principal David Wangen said all of the school's teachers have bought into the method, along with digging into data to find out where each student stands.

"Teachers want the data," he said. "They rely on it now."

A different kind of Indian Education program

Beadle's program isn't structured like many Indian education programs throughout the state. He emphasizes academics first with language, identity and culture woven into the fabric of the teachings. Students who come to him during the day get extra help with things such as reading and math, and he works with teachers to tailor his instruction.

His class is filled first by native students, with the remaining spots taken by those classified as being at-risk.

"I don't feel it's right to give kids culture through my lens," said Beadle, a descendant of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. "So what I try to do is spark an interest in culture and get them talking about it, asking their families. We have kids from different tribes ... Culture means different things to different people."

Some parents have wanted Beadle's room to be a place where their children can decompress and take a break from math and reading, Beadle said.

"I get that," he said. "Parents are afraid they are losing their cultural identities."

Some parents haven't seen what happens in his class and aren't aware of the way the Ojibwe language and native culture works in, he said.

Posters sharing the Anishinaabe seven Grandfathers' teachings --which include honesty and respect -- cover the walls of Beadle's room, for example, along with a section for an Ojibwe word of the week.

"We take those seven teachings and tie them in to what we are doing," said Tina Swartwoudt, the home-school liaison for the Indian education program who also helps in the classroom during the day. "Culture is embedded into what we do. It may not be a specific lesson, but when behaviors come up" adults point to those teachings for how to act.

Families vary on how much cultural teaching they want their child to have, said Gerard Sorderlet Sr., chairman of the Local Indian Education Committee, a voice for parents at the school.

Some want more exposure to language and some families want to teach their own traditions, he said.

"My grandma was a product of a boarding school. She was told to be Indian but be quiet about it," he said. "There is still some permeation from that that exists to this day. Some people don't want to fill out (paperwork) that says they are native."

For several decades, beginning in the late 19th century, thousands of American Indians were sent to federally-mandated boarding schools where their cultures and languages were suppressed and they were forced to assimilate.

Building relationships

About 110 of the 530 students at Churchill are American Indian. Many come from the nearby Fond du Lac Reservation. Districtwide, American Indian enrollment is more than 20 percent of the student population. About 5 percent of the district's teaching and support staff is American Indian. Three of the nine teachers are at Churchill.

The district has made an effort to hire American Indian educators, said Tara Graves, coordinator of the Indian education program for the district.

"I think they have a really good understanding of what families and students have gone through with boarding school issues and how it does take time to build relationships," she said. "It's knowing they have someone they can trust and go to."

The district has a good relationship with parents and the American Indian community in Cloquet and the surrounding area, Sorderlet Sr. said.

He acknowledged that the relationship, years ago, wasn't always that way because of communication issues. But in recent years, he said, people may not always agree, but they are heard. Superintendent Ken Scarbrough comes to the committee meetings and "really makes strides in order to work with the Native American community. It's not your kids or our kids. It's all of our kids."

One of Churchill's strengths is training teachers in cultural competency, Sorderlet Sr. said, and that makes a difference at the school.

The relationship the school has with the parent committee was another thing that set it apart, Sellers said.

Many schools, despite educating large populations of American Indian students, lacked "a really strong Indian voice at the table," he said. "And, some teachers simply aren't culturally competent and aren't getting support" (to become competent.)

Beadle has been at the school for five years, having come from the College of St. Scholastica's program for native teaching -- a program the Cloquet district draws from with frequency. He's known the fifth-graders since they were in kindergarten, and he and the rest of the staff have been intent on building relationships with each kid. That's just as important as the data, he said.

"I know how to help kids who are struggling to get back on track. If you can't get kids to buy into it, and why it connects to their lives," Beadle said, "all the data in the world won't do any good."

Proficiency scores

2012-13 Minnesota Comprehensive Achievement proficiency scores for American Indian students at the Cloquet school district's Churchill Elementary in comparison to the state average for the American Indian elementary population.


Churchill American Indian students

Grade 3: 100 percent proficient

Grade 4: 73 percent

Grade 5: 57 percent

Minnesota American Indian students

Grade 3: 52 percent

Grade 4: 49 percent

Grade 5: 39 percent


Churchill American Indian students

Grade 3: 58 percent

Grade 4: 46 percent

Grade 5: 50 percent

Minnesota American Indian students

Grade 3: 36 percent

Grade 4: 29 percent

Grade 5: 41 percent


Churchill American Indian students

Grade 5: 50 percent

Minnesota American Indian students

Grade 5: 35 percent