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SKC Receives Grant for Early Childhood Education, Native Teacher Development

Tribal college seeks to promote young STEM learners, increase ratio of Native American teachers

Salish Kootenai College of the Flathead Indian Reservation is one of five tribal colleges nationwide to receive a grant from a newly established program that promotes early-childhood education in the STEM fields while seeking to increase the prevalence of Native American teachers and encourage cultural awareness.

The American Indian College Fund administers the program, called “For the Wisdom of Children: Strengthening the Teacher of Color Pipeline.” The initiative is funded by a two-year, $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and recipients were announced earlier this month.

“We believe that the earlier children are immersed in their culture and languages and traditional teachings, the better they do in school performance on tests, self-esteem, (resistance) to drugs and alcohol,” Dina Horwedel of the American Indian Fund said. “Research bears this out.”

“We’re trying to create students who are college ready from a young age,” she added. “Cradle to career is what we’re calling it.”

Salish Kootenai College (SKC) will receive $71,000 the first year, which began on July 1, and $50,000 the second year, according to Amy Burland, dean of the college’s education division. The other four recipients are Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Minnesota; Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College in Michigan; Northwest Indian College in Washington; and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico.

“We’re very proud,” Burland said.

Burland said Native Americans are “severely underrepresented” in STEM fields, which stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” The grant will help foster those skills in students from a young age, as well as encourage and develop more native teachers in those fields.

“A lot of times early-childhood teachers go into early childhood because they don’t feel secure in teaching mathematics, so they want to teach younger kids,” Burland said. “So this is a really great program for professional development, because at the college level that’s one area that SKC looks for opportunities. That’s one of the areas the faculty says the college lacks.”

The grant will help SKC develop its program called “Our People’s Timeline: Community STEM Education, Season by Season Project (OPT),” which was “designed around our Flathead Reservation communities’ needs, as expressed through community-based conversations with local educational agencies.”

“Our primary goal is to redesign our Early Childhood Degree programs by embedding culturally appropriate STEM curriculum within the content and methods courses Early Childhood teacher candidates complete as part of the regular program requirements,” the project’s description states. Burland said “early childhood” is defined as birth to age 8.

The SKC program’s newly developed science courses will be taught in a three-part series “emphasizing a balance of Western and Indigenous perspectives of the sciences.” The courses will meet program requirements for both Early Childhood and Elementary Education majors.

Course content will encompass “biological, earth, physical, chemical, and ecological sciences and (be) embedded with technology, engineering, and mathematics,” according to the project mission statement. It will also incorporate as much native language “as appropriate and possible” of the three tribes that comprise the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes: the Seli’š (Salish or “Flathead”); Qlispé  (Pend d’Oreille or Kalispel); and Ktunaxa (Kootenai).

“The purpose of the project is to build developmentally appropriate, community-based STEM learning experiences,” program material states. “This project aims to bridge the revitalization of our (Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai) cultures, values, and languages, as well as the wealth of STEM and education-driven programs and resources available to serve our children, youth, parents, families, pre-service and in-service teachers throughout the Flathead Reservation.”

Burland said the college plans to hold five community events throughout the year and encourages parents to attend with their kids. She also notes that while the grant and program focus on Native American teachers, “our non-tribal teachers will benefit, too.” But she reiterates that an overarching goal is to increase the ratio of native teachers to native students across the reservation.

“That is our mission: to get more Native American teachers out there,” she said. “That in itself will narrow the gap between Indian and non-Indian students. The more Native American teachers we can get into our schools, the more role models they’ll have and the more possibilities they’ll see. That does make a difference.”

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