Carlton seventh-grader Gavin LeBrasseur stood in front of the "Wave Maker" Wednesday, April 17, at Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium to watch how slight adjustments at the console could change the size and frequency of the waves.

"I'm just messing around seeing what kind of different things it can do," he said. "I learned the bottom of the lake bed can affect the waves a lot."

Elsewhere in the aquarium, Carlton students were exploring the "We Are Water" exhibit, checking out local and more exotic aquatic animals in the "touch pools" and birds in the aviary.

The trip to the aquarium was organized by Carlton First Nations program coordinator Everett LaFramboise. He said the trip's purpose was to help students understand their personal connection to water.

"'We Are Water' explores our relationship to water through a cultural lens," LaFramboise said. "I brought the entire seventh grade to expose all students to a cultural view of our relationship to water. My personal view is that it's beneficial to everyone to understand the native perspective and that our relationship to the water is more than just scientific."

LaFramboise began working in the Carlton School District In March 2018. Previously, he worked as a case manager in the Fond du Lac Reservation Behavioral Health Department. At Carlton, he has worked with the Carlton Local Indian Education Committee (LIEC) to advocate for Native American students and integrate native perspectives into the district's curriculum.

More than 14 percent of the district's students are Native American, according to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), and the program is funded through state and federal grants based on the number of qualifying students at the school.

LaFramboise changed the name of the program from "Indian Education" to "First Nations" to better reflect how Native Americans view themselves and to make the program more attractive to native students - the point of the program itself.

"Generally, it's to make native students want to come to school," he said. "Historically, school has not been a good experience for native students."

LaFramboise pointed to the experience of Native Americans at boarding schools - like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania - as an example of the forced removal and assimilation that continues to evoke painful memories in native communities around the U.S. The last of the boarding schools closed in the 1950s, but there are grandparents of Carlton students who attended them, LaFramboise said.

More than advocating for Native American students, though, the First Nations program aims to expose all Carlton's students to an indigenous perspective.

"I would like to be able to partner with science/STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers to bring classes to learn about native cultural activities like harvesting maple sugar, collecting wild rice and maybe even the sweat lodge," LaFramboise said. "That's what it's about - integrating the curriculum with the culture so what they're learning in a book can also be experienced."

Benefit to enrollment

LaFramboise presented a letter of non-concurrence from the LIEC to the Carlton School Board on April 15. It said the district isn't meeting the needs of its Native American students and made several requests of the district to better serve those students.

Included in the requests were an additional $60,000 in funding from the district - on top of the federal and state funding the school receives - and hiring a Native American paraprofessional to work with native students.

However, LaFramboise acknowledged the district's financial limitations during the meeting and stressed that potentially the best - and most cost-effective - course of action would be to increase the staff's cultural awareness training.

Currently, the staff receive a 45-minute training before school every year. LaFramboise encouraged the district to increase the initial training to 90 minutes with additional 45-minute sessions following the first and third quarters of the school year.

"This is never going to work unless you have the staff on board," LaFramboise told the Pine Journal.

LaFramboise believes if the First Nations program is supported by the district and becomes more robust, it could encourage more native students to enroll - a benefit to the district as a whole.

Carlton's enrollment numbers declined by more than 7 percent this school year, which has led to budget and staff cuts. LaFramboise said there is population of students in the Carlton area that could stem the tide of students leaving the district and help increase funding from state and federal sources.

In 2017-18, more than 300 students living in the Carlton district open-enrolled in other districts, according to MDE. Numbers for 2018-19 aren't yet available.