Indian Education Program welcomes new facilitator

Tacoma School Districtâ??s (TSD) Indian Education Program has undergone some positive changes lately. A public hearing was held recently in the library of the districtâ??s Madison site to welcome new leadership, exchange ideas and agree on a plan for getting the program back up to full speed again. In addition, at a recent meeting, the Tacoma School Board approved the submission of a demonstration grant application for the program, which will help ensure funding for the next school year.

TSDâ??s Indian Education Program was established in 1975 to support and encourage American Indian students in academic achievement, attendance, goal setting and career development during their K-12 education. The program provides supplemental, as well as instructed, educational coursework for all targeted Native American students in the form of tutoring either during class, after school or on weekends.

The program also helps Native American students enrolled in TSD high schools and the Puyallup Indian Tribeâ??s Chief Leschi High School to graduate and move on to college by providing credited coursework in order for students to make up credit or earn extra credit in elective courses.

The program is advised by a Parent Advisory Committee comprised of parents and guardians whose children are Native American and enrolled in the program.

The purpose of the hearing last month, was to inform parents on the status of the program and future plans, as well as to address goals. There was ample opportunity for the crowd to speak, and many who have supported the program for a long time are glad to see it back.

â??Weâ??re celebrating the cleanup of Indian Education,â?? said program president Abby Rios Welton. â??We deeply give thanks that our program is going in the right direction. We are expecting great things.â??

The program had struggled over the past year following the resignation of its former director, Jim Hopkins, in mid-school year. Staffing issues held the program back from operating at its full potential until new leadership was selected to get it focused again.

â??The program was always operational; it just had different levels of support,â?? noted Gil Mendoza, executive director of career/technical education and grants management for Tacoma Public Schools (TPS). â??To some people, it may have looked like it was on hiatus, but it wasnâ??t.â??

Mendoza said the hiring of a new program facilitator, Walt Swan, Jr., is a key development. A member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, Walt Swan, Jr. recently relocated to the South Sound and came on board with the program in February.

Several board positions were filled during the March 29 hearing. Jessica Tompkins was voted in as vice president and Ellen Conrad, the programâ??s secretary, also accepted the job as treasurer until someone else steps forward to take the position.

Swan addressed the programâ??s budget at the meeting, explaining that the Indian Education Program operates through two grants, one of which is about to run out. The program has enough money now, but according to grant regulations, the remaining funds must be spent by a specific date, which arrives this summer.

â??We have to use it or lose it,â?? as Swan put it. â??We need to make sure these funds are well planned out and well spent.â??

He raised the possibility, which the whole crowd supported, of hiring after-school tutors for students in need, perhaps by paying a teacher to stay late, or hiring qualified tutors to provide cultural enrichment experiences for students.

â??We want to improve attendance, parent participation and grades with this grant,â?? Swan declared. He noted that program organizers are working hard to secure more funding, but have a limited number of students signed up for the program, so the funds that the program will receive this year, will be just a small portion of what it has gotten in the past. When more students sign up, more grant funding can be requested.

For every Native American-identified student in TPS who fills out the required form, the Indian Education Program receives approximately $203 in federal grant funds. However, Swan said out of the more than 800 Native American-identified students in the district, only about half of them, 439, have a completed form on file.

Mendoza explained that when Native American students enroll in TPS, itâ??s up to them whether or not they want to identify themselves as Native American. If they do, they must complete the specific federal form, which in turn means that the Indian Education Program can request more grant money.

Mendoza said staff members have been â??reinstated to go out there and start knocking on doorsâ?? in an effort to get more Native American students signed up. Swan and Vice President Tompkins have both expressed determination at getting more students into the program to keep it well funded for the welfare of the students themselves.

â??It has nowhere to go but up,â?? Swan remarked.

â??The Indian Education Program is valuable because we serve all kinds of kids in public education but when we have access to federal funds for targeted groups we want to take advantage of that,â?? Mendoza said. â??It allows us to focus directly on that population base and lessen the achievement gap between Native American students and the majority population.â??

The organizers said they need help if the program is going to be a success. â??We need parent involvement,â?? Welton said. â??Itâ??s crucial to the livelihood of our childrenâ??s education.â??

Monthly meetings of the Indian Education Program are held on the third Thursday of each month from 6-8 p.m. in the districtâ??s Madison complex library at 3102 S. 43rd St. Program organizers are currently seeking donations for the Indian Education Program graduation ceremony May 22 at Mt. Tahoma High School. For more information, call Walt Swan, Jr. or Indian Education Support Specialist Doris Santos at (253) 571-1836.

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