When it comes to discussing education, Dennis Olson has a few statistics memorized; numbers he says are 'unacceptable.' In Minnesota, the statewide high school graduation rate is 76 percent. Among American Indians it's 42 percent. The dropout rate for all students in Minnesota is 4.8 percent. For American Indians it's 18.8 percent.
Olson, a member a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, was named the new director of American Indian Education at the Minnesota Department of Education in September. He previously served as education commissioner for the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe.
Olson said one goal of his new job is to restore trust between Minnesota's 11 tribal communities--four Dakota/Lakota communities and seven Ojibwe bands--and the state education department. That trust was hurt, Olson said, with the absence of any person in his role at the agency for more than five years.
Olson recently discussed his new role with The Daily Circuit.
OLSON: It's the million-dollar question. It's absolutely unacceptable, and it's difficult for communities to keep hearing about. It really is tough for one person you know, particularly knowing that not too long ago we were a very strong Indian education program, not only in the state but in the nation. You know, Minnesota had a model Indian education program and- with, you know, budget difficulties, reductions in funding, that slowly was eroded, and now we're back to square one. And maybe that's why the numbers haven't changed.
But there are communities and there are schools that are out there, that are doing a phenomenal job. I was actually just in the upper Sioux community near Granite Falls, talking with their tribal leadership earlier this week, and they work very hard on this exact issue and they're graduating 97, 98 percent of their students from their community. And these are all students that attend Yellow Medicine school district, and what they offer their students is I think what we need to be offering to all Indian students in the state. We'll see that gap close very quickly.
WEBER: What is it? What are they offering?
OLSON: It's strong commitment to early childhood education; working on reading initiatives; reading well by third grade; and certainly pushing students to- to graduate and you see those students picking each other up. If they see a student that's struggling- one of their peers, they're themselves initiating ways to help that student, make it.
WEBER: Is there something fundamentally different, about the act of an American Indian student going to school, that in any way precludes them more from achieving? And I'm wondering about community feelings about education.
OLSON: Sure. It's- it's a difficult question to answer. I mean certainly you get into components of historical trauma...
WEBER: The boarding schools.
OLSON: The boarding school era certainly and it was very recent. And you're talking about some of these students who are in school now, their grandmothers, or their great-grandparents that- it wasn't that many generations ago. And so there is still, in many cases still a distrust, with formalized education. And, um that translates today, and it's one of the reasons why I work so closely with the communities and with tribal education leaders, because they know how best their students learn, and their kids learn, and they- they know how best to teach them.
WEBER: How do they learn different? What do you mean by that?
OLSON: Well, at the state in general there's a lot of geographical differences, certainly many of the tribal communities in Minnesota are geographically isolated, and that, translates to often a lack of connectivity, maybe to technology, opportunities to, you know bring some of those new 2012 components into the classroom, but certainly if those are requirements at their school, many of those students don't have that access at home.
Aside from technology and geographical differences, it's a broad generalization but, many different learning styles within Indian student communities. They tend to be more- students tend to be more experiential, more hands-on; many have difficulty with lecture format, with kind of the traditional school environment.
WEBER: But what you're describing, in theory could also be described about students in some other ethnicities.
OLSON: Oh absolutely.
WEBER: So why is it so different?
OLSON: What I got back to I think is... is that, native students are still, so deeply connected and involved with their language and with their culture. That component is for the most part completely missing in their school environment.
It stems back to, I think some of the historical trauma pieces where many times that traditional first language for their grandparents, their great-grandparents, was stripped from them. And so it wasn't passed down. Now there's you know, there's a huge native language revitalization movement going on to save these languages. I think students are thirsty for that again, to once again connect.
This is a community-wide, multi-agency issue, if we truly want to talk about the achievement gap and want to address the achievement gap. It's not attributed to gangs, specifically, or language loss specifically, or test measures specifically but, rather an all-encompassing issue and so, I definitely want to be a person in those discussions, but really making it a community effort.
WEBER: But when you come back here in two years, and we talk about whether you've done a good job or are doing a good job, should I be looking at these dropout numbers and seeing if they came down? Should I be looking at the achievement numbers, the math scores? Or is there something else I should be measuring you against?
OLSON: Yeah, certainly the numbers are important, and I think that's really what drives a lot of legislative decisions. It's easy to look at, it's hard data, it's right there. What I measure my success on, and I hope, you know, it translates well, is that, there's a lot of qualitative information out there too, and there are people that are telling stories, and I really want to be that open ear that hears those stories, and maybe takes it to the next step and, develops those stories into ways to shape that data and to improve those numbers.
For many folks, data is not the only thing. There are strategies- there are ways that maybe don't translate well into data, but initiatives that are working. And so it's my job to take those stories, take those initiatives, and make it work for the data.
WEBER: If the needle doesn't move, would you be able to then say something like "Oh, well I never got the funding?" And isn't that just the same answer that people have been giving for years?
OLSON: Sure. You know funding's a big part of it, but it's also time. We have a huge mountain to climb here, and to say that we're able to measure it within a year and show improvement within, say two years, I don't know that necessarily, we're going to be able to have all those initiatives in place and have the time to show that they are in fact working. I think we're on a great path here, but, we're going to need time as well.
WEBER: The skeptic in me though says you just wrote yourself an out.
OLSON: That's right. That's fair.
WEBER: And I'm not accusing you of anything but it just fuels I think, I wonder, frustration among, the fact that - I get you're new and you're trying to say these things, but the needle hasn't moved.
WEBER: It's been so long.
OLSON: Right. And I don't think we've had, as strong a voice, in the department and in leadership than we've had right now. And, you know I'm committed to listening like I said to those voices from tribal nations, and from Indian education professionals, they guide my work.
(Transcription by Ben Martin, MPR news)