SALEM — Debbie Austin grew up in the Great Depression, a “time when it was not a good thing to be an Indian.”
Talked down to by teachers, professors and medical professionals, berated by passers-by, Austin thought, “If we were white, things would have been a lot easier for us.”
But she doesn’t want her more than 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren to grow up the same way.
“I (don’t) want my children to feel bad about themselves,” Austin said.
Austin and her husband, Warner Austin, are elders in and founders of the Native American Cross Cultural Association, based in Salem, which celebrates various indigenous cultures across North America.
They advocate for more Native American studies and experiences to be shared in the classroom and encourage native students to pursue their education.
But they are working against myriad obstacles.
Native American students in Oregon are graduating at lower rates, performing worse on state assessments, attending fewer days and receiving more suspensions and expulsions than their peers, according to a recent report released by the Oregon Department of Education.
For graduation rates alone, Oregon’s Native American students are graduating at about 56 percent, compared to the state’s overall four-year graduation rate of 74.8 percent.
“It’s clear from the data that there are significant opportunity gaps for American Indian and Alaska Native students,” said Colt Gill, acting deputy superintendent for the state.
“The data allow us to see the problem, but it is up to us to partner with our tribes, communities and districts to … better support our American Indian and Alaska Native students in culturally responsive ways.”
Experts believe a few key issues causing these negative outcomes include the lack of culturally relevant curriculum, a lack of Native American teachers and staff in schools, a gap in services available to the families along with additional obstacles many Native American students face outside of the classroom.
A doctor in Pennsylvania told Debbie Austin in the late 1970s when she was a young mother, “Don’t ever bring your child here again — You people carry syphilis and tuberculosis.”
Shortly after, a college professor in Oregon told her the same thing. So did her textbooks.
“Our children need to know that is not true,” Austin said. “They need to know who they are and where they came from.”
Austin argues there needs to be more curriculum about the Native American experience and more teachers and staff who identify as Native American in schools.
Shelby Maerz, who works for the Indian Education Department for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, agreed, saying students “need to be able to see themselves throughout the system.”
And according to state workers, student outcomes improve when an effort is made to be more inclusive.
The Tribal Attendance Pilot Project, for example, has been working to lessen the rate of chronically absent native students.
By partnering school districts with the nine federally-recognized tribes in the state, the program creates culturally specific plans and materials designed to the needs of each community.
Though the chronic absenteeism rate for native students is higher than that of their peers, according to the report, the rate held steady at 30 percent in the last year recorded. The rate of chronically absent non-native students increased from 17 to 19 percent.
“Despite an unusually harsh winter, the majority of the schools with Tribal Attendance Pilot Project family advocates had improvements in their chronic absenteeism rates,” said April Campbell, the Indian education advisor for the state.
“It’s a good indicator that implementing culturally relevant programs provides benefits to all students, not just those from specific student groups,” she said.
There has also been action at the state level to improve representation in course materials.
Senate Bill 13, passed earlier this year, requires the Oregon Department of Education to develop curriculum exploring the Native American experience and provide professional development to teachers and administrators relating to the curriculum.
Native American students in Oregon check the box “American Indian/Alaska Native” for race/ethnicity when enrolling in school.
But in order to receive services from the school districts, they have to do the additional paperwork required by the federal government and prove they have a parent or grandparent who is a member of a tribe in the United States.
In Salem-Keizer Public Schools, the approximately 700 students who take the additional steps receive various services, including weekly study groups, additional math tutoring, summer school classes, cultural events, parent classes and a culturally-appropriate graduation ceremony.
This past year, 56 of the 70 seniors in the program graduated — an 80 percent graduation rate.
Yet when averaged with dozens of other American Indian/Alaska Native students who do not receive services from the Indian Education Department, the four-year graduation rate is only 56 percent.
Lillian Govus, a spokeswoman for the district, said the individual attention is part of what makes the students served by the department as successful as they are.
“The students see Shelby (Maerz), how much she cares, and they have a sense of value in the schools,” Govus said. “That’s unique.”
Austin spoke to the effectiveness of the district’s efforts through her great-grandchildren’s experiences.
“They love school,” she said. “They don’t feel bad about themselves. They wear their hair long and are proud of who they are.”
But there remains a gap in which families who do not fill out additional paperwork do not receive the support they may need.
“There need to be more services for all our native students,” Maerz said.