In the U.P's Native American communities, early childhood education is getting a big boost

With an $800,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan is making sustainable investments in early childhood development and education throughout the U.P.'s Native American communities.
Numerically speaking, Michigan has one of the highest Native American populations of any state east of the Mississippi. But like other marginalized communities, its 12 federally recognized tribes often occupy out-of-the-way areas not visible to non-natives. The five recognized tribes that call the U.P. home--Hannahville, Bay Mills, Keweenaw Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Lac Vieux Desert--live in largely rural communities that downstate tourists and even city-dwelling Yoopers don't often visit.

This isolation, coupled with powerful (and shameful) historical forces that systematically shredded pre-contact tribes' ways of life, means the Upper Peninsula's tribes face formidable challenges. In native communities, poverty, joblessness, substance abuse and broken homes all occur at higher rates than in Michigan's majority population, and the situation hasn't improved much since the middle of the 20th century.

Aid Where It's Most Sorely Needed

Although the scale of the problem is truly daunting, things may slowly be changing for the better. Last year, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) tapped the Sault Ste. Marie-based Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan (ITC), which oversees all 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, to receive an early childhood development and education grant totaling $800,000 over three years (May 1, 2014 through April 30, 2017).

Dubbed Honoring Our Children, the grant aims to "strengthen early learning outcomes of Native American children by developing leadership and building capacity of families, schools and urban reservation-based native communities to work together to promote success," according to WKKF. It has several focus areas, all of which tie back to child welfare and development: early childhood education (from the newborn stage to age eight), community safety, parenting skills, family structure/stability and substance abuse.

ITC is using the funds to strengthen existing programming and explore new initiatives with all five U.P. tribes. Though ITC and many U.P. and downstate tribes have applied for private grants before, "there's a recognition that Native communities are typically underfunded by private donors," says Honoring Our Children program director Michelle Willis, who was hired by ITC to oversee the initiative.

Facilitating Collaboration and Communication

Willis says the grant's first year was devoted partly to collecting needs- and program-related data, and partly to identifying existing networks and communication channels that stand to be strengthened and improved.

"Communication is a really big stumbling block," says Willis. "Tribal agencies and departments often don't know what their counterparts elsewhere are doing." She points to a lack of reporting and coordination between agencies, and occasionally even a lack of intra-departmental communication--some groups don't hold regular staff meetings, for example.

This effort has produced some early successes. With Honoring Our Children's help, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe has improved coordination between its education programs--mostly Head Start and early childhood daycare--and Anishnaabek Community and Family Services, a child welfare agency. The goal: to identify potentially at-risk children and coordinate solutions, including foster placement.

In the Keweenaw Bay and Bay Mills Indian Communities, Honoring Our Children monies are helping to strengthen communication, collaboration and capabilities within existing departments: Healthy Start in the former and the Boys & Girls Clubs in the latter. To identify more areas and departments that could benefit from additional resources, and to distribute aid and manpower effectively, Willis created a "tribal assistance network" that works with contact people within each U.P. tribe's leadership structure.

Spreading the Word and Trying New Things

According to Willis, the tribal assistance program is at the forefront of the first brand-new initiative to come out of Honoring Our Children. Dubbed "Fatherhood Is Sacred," the initiative encourages fathers to be more active in family life, particularly when their children are very young. Participating dads have access to parenting classes, social services and other forms of support.

Fatherhood Is Sacred is currently rolling out as a pilot program in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which Willis says has an unusually high proportion of single-parent and grandparent-headed households. (Though it's a longstanding cultural practice for Native American grandparents to take an active role in child-rearing, it's not normal or ideal for parents to be totally absent from households with young children.) If it's successful, Willis hopes to roll it out at other tribes during the second half of the grant's lifespan.

Honoring Our Children has also seen early family training success at two major gatherings for Native American families, educators and tribal leaders. At a recent Gathering of Native Americans (G.O.N.A.), partner organizations provided parenting seminars and educational materials to tribal leaders and educators. According to Willis, about three-quarters of participants reported incorporating what they learned into their work--"a major success," she says.

ICA Associates' Community Development Intensive offered a similar training opportunity for tribal leaders and educators--"a classic community training program," as Willis put it. "The Community Development Intensive is a great opportunity for leaders to get re-engaged with the communities they serve," she adds, noting barriers between decision-makers and regular citizens naturally arise in any bureaucratic organization.

Willis has some ambitious goals for Honoring Our Children's second year. One is to get the program more involved with Head Start and Healthy Start, both critical to childhood health and education outcomes. Another is to implement a scalable measurement system to determine how resources are being used--and whether they're being used effectively.

She's also in the process of implementing an outcome-measuring framework that will "give us a much better sense of what's working and what's not as we move into 2016," she says. Willis wants to formalize the already-in-use practice of providing quarterly status updates to leadership at each Michigan tribe.

And perhaps most ambitiously, she's about to roll out a six-month, statewide public awareness campaign to let on- and off-reservation populations know exactly what Honoring Our Children means for them. The campaign's exact outlines are still being worked out, but Willis expects content focused on community and home safety, the importance of early childhood education, and healthy childrearing habits. She expects a regular newsletter, aggressive social media marketing, TV and radio spots, and possibly billboards.

Challenges Ahead--and Opportunities, Too

Willis doesn't mince words about the scale of the problem Honoring Our Children addresses.

"While $800,000 is certainly a lot of money, the scope of the initiative is very broad," she says.
One challenge is simply logistical: Some tribes have thousands of members across wide geographies, making it difficult to reach everyone who could potentially benefit from family development and early childhood education programs.

Others are more deeply rooted. In her previous role as a reading specialist in the eastern U.P., Willis often encountered non-Native American educators who misjudged Native students' capabilities and needs. Younger children who seemed distracted, unresponsive, or unable to read at grade level were assumed to require intensive remediation or diversion into special education programs.

"I'd say, 'No, these kids are really smart--they just have certain things going on at home,'" recalled Willis. She cited one family in which a 10-year-old girl effectively functioned as the head of household, dressing and cooking for her younger siblings, including a "brilliant" second-grader whose unstable home life impacted his academic accomplishments. Willis convinced administrators to shift the child out of an intensive remediation course and into a program that better suited his considerable skills.

Likewise, Willis found that educators in her district were more than motivated to help kids outside regular school hours--they just didn't always know how. "When I'd approach teachers about helping after hours, they'd sometimes be surprised that contributing in this way was even an option," she says.

By breaking down communication and knowledge barriers like this, Willis was able to deepen the old-fashioned teacher-student engagement that's so critical to improving educational outcomes. When she left her district, its Native American students' test scores had improved significantly, outpacing majority students' in many areas--a major shakeup of the status quo.

In the Kellogg grant, Willis sees real potential to achieve similar victories on a much larger scale. "The work we've done already really reinforces the idea that collaboration and communication can improve outcomes," she says. "The most important thing now is to keep our tribal partners, educators and parents motivated to be change agents over the long-term."

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.

Brian Martucci writes about business, finance, food, drink and anything else that catches his fancy. You can find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci
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