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OUR VIEW: Churchill gets a shout-out for thoughtful approach to Indian Ed

Churchill Principal shares the MinnCAN award with some students when MinnCAN officials visited the school in September of last year. Wendy Johnson/Pine Journal

One nice thing about the MinnCAN (Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now) report on Native American Student Achievement was its focus on what schools are doing right, rather than what they’re doing wrong. The goal was to create a resource that would be useful, by highlighting different schools where test scores are consistently improving in a state where the graduation rate for Native American students is shamefully close to the 45 percent mark.

It will come as no surprise to Pine Journal readers that Churchill Elementary School got its own section in the MinnCAN report that came out earlier this week. The Cloquet school nabbed the No. 2 spot on MinnCAN’s list of top-performing elementary schools. According to the report, MinnCAN credited three main things: the staff’s data-driven approach in developing an Intervention Block Schedule for all students, the work of Native American Indian Ed coordinator Phil Beadle (who grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation) and the involvement of parents, who requested a shift in the Indian Ed program from an emphasis on culture to a focus on academics.

We applaud the parents, staff and students at Churchill Elementary for caring enough to make a difference, whether that means studying students’ test scores and talking to past teachers to determine how best to help them succeed, or having the gumption to ask the schools to try something different.

While we can’t reprint the entire section on Churchill here, we would like to highlight how the change came about in the first place by reprinting the following account from Page 17 of the report:

… the focus in Indian Ed is squarely on academics, which Beadle said represents a departure from the past: “We went from a cultural program with academic components to an academic program with cultural components.”

That shift in emphasis came at the behest of parents, according to Gerard Sorderlet Sr., chair of the Cloquet Local Indian Education Committee and an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac tribe. Upset by the poor academic standing of their children, the committee approached the school board. “On the reservation, we have a lot of addiction and a lot of poverty, and the only thing I know that can change that cycle is education,” Sorderlet said. The parent response coincided with the opportunity to pilot the Response to Intervention process in 2005, which was what led Churchill to develop the Intervention Block Schedule.

“Cloquet gets it,” said Mike Rabideaux, superintendent of the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School, one of four Minnesota Schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education. “They know they have an obligation to serve Indian people, and they’ve involved Indian people. The local Indian Education Committee has an active voice. That’s not the norm.”

The Intervention Block Schedule also deserves greater explanation. The report describes the process:

The school year begins with extensive testing and then a full-day retreat, in which the staff hunkers down to pore over data points for each student which, in conjunction with their personal knowledge of the children, helps the educators determine which of their 530 students need what level of intervention. “Data,” declared Principal David Wangen, “drives what we do.”

The groupings are multicultural: Native students may end up working with any of the intervention staff, and non-Native students can receive extra help through Indian Ed. And rather than being pulled out of class piecemeal (risking the stigma that can go with the need for extra help), the Block Schedule facilitates the students leaving together (sometimes as many as half the class) for a 50-minute reading or 25-minute math session. Not only does this prevent disruption for the classroom teacher, it provides enrichment time for the remaining students.

Churchill wasn’t the only school in the MinnCAN report that approached the problem of Native American test scores by working to improve all students’ academic performance, rather than singling out a group of students for extra instruction. While we understand the need for the state to measure results by race to ensure that no group is left behind, it doesn’t mean children should be divided by race to ensure that schools meet state- or federally-mandated criteria. Churchill just proved that.

Jana Peterson

Editor’s note: For the complete text, go online to or stop by the Pine Journal office and we’ll let you read our copy.