Affirming Native Student Attendance in Minneapolis

March 9, 2021

by Drake Lawrence

On occasion, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs highlights stories of innovation from government offices around the state of Minnesota and the Native nations that share its geography. We spoke with the Phillips Indian Educators attendance workgroup, which has for years worked to promote the attendance of Native students in the Minneapolis Public School district. 

Minneapolis students at an end-of-year celebration
Students attend an end-of-year event in 2019, celebrating higher attendance rates for Native
students in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

In Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), the low attendance rate of Native students is a chronic problem. But the Phillips Indian Educators attendance workgroup — an expansive and highly collaborative effort of devoted community organizations and government offices — has for years aimed to reach each K-12 Native student in the district and affirm their participation in their own education. 

Through community efforts, direct outreach, celebrations, and a growing understanding among district staff of the history of truancy courts and family separation within Native communities, this workgroup is setting an example — not only for how a community can support its youth’s education, but also for sustainable collaboration among so many different organizations.

'The system doesn't work for us'

In Minnesota, students are required to attend school from kindergarten until they turn 18 years old. If they’re absent too many days in a year, they can face discipline through truancy laws and the courts. But the Native communities in Minneapolis have long viewed this punitive approach as yet another source of mistrust in government offices and the judicial system. 

“The system doesn’t work for us,” says Christine Wilson, family engagement coordinator with the Indian Education Department at MPS and a member of the attendance workgroup. “Chronic absenteeism has always been an issue, going back to when I was a student, and continues today to be [an issue] within the American Indian community.” It’s a pressing issue for schools, for families, for communities, and for the system itself.

In 2013, Phillips Indian Educators (PIE), a subgroup of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors which addresses the unique educational needs of the Minneapolis Native community—formed the attendance workgroup. Upon the workgroup’s inception it received a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust to fund the initiative for the first three years. Now, support comes through contributions from community resources and an unwavering shared purpose.

Now in its seventh year, the workgroup — which meets weekly through the entire school year — includes staff from several entities: Minneapolis Public Schools and the Indian Education Department, the Division of Indian Work, Little Earth of United Tribes, Migizi Communications, Hennepin County Libraries, and the Hennepin County be@school program.

An individual approach

The group provides insight and ideas, and plots out how to promote attendance through positive reinforcement and community outreach. Executive Director of Little Earth of United Tribes Joe Beaulieu describes the group as “a bunch of different Native agencies coming together to support these students. We all have their backs.”

The group addresses the issue of student absenteeism through several avenues, all focused on considering each person as an individual and the factors that may play into their attendance issues. 

“We try to reach every student, provide support for every school,” said Braden Canfield, a social worker with the Indian Education Department at MPS regarding his department’s contributions to this initiative. That first step, of reaching out and being present for each student, is a significant factor in how the workgroup’s affirmative approach can reach the right students and their families.

“[We] reconnect with parents, identify barriers as to why students aren’t able to attend school,” said Breanne Johnson-Bobolink, the Division of Indian Work’s liaison to the Hennepin County be@school program. 

Perhaps a student struggles with transportation or timing. If they miss the bus to school in the morning, it’s likely the student will miss the whole school day. Perhaps students are sick, but parents aren’t aware or aren’t comfortable contacting the school to report the excused absence.

The program has helped to reach families in a way that doesn’t bring in punitive measures, but rather resources, such as parenting tips for what to look for in childhood illnesses and mentor offerings to pair families with good attendance with those who are struggling.

Community support

The workgroup is nimble in its approach to supporting student attendance, and has over the years utilized several different initiatives to promote attendance in the community. In some schools, the workgroup offered a quarterly raffle to reward ongoing good attendance. In others, parents were offered training and a stipend in exchange for providing volunteer time and leadership in the school, as a way to develop a sense of community for the student and their families.

The workgroup also organized community meals for the All Nations Program of South High to help bring students in, encourage them to buy into their education, and begin the process of identifying what may be keeping them from school. 

While community intervention is important, attendance rates for Native students aren’t likely to improve without systemic buy-in. In 2006 the Minneapolis Public School district and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors signed a Memorandum of Agreement to work together to improve the education and well-being of the Native students in the district. 

Hennepin County’s ongoing commitment to this attendance workgroup affirms that buy-in further. And even Hennepin County Libraries is a partner in this work, for a unique reason. 

“A lot of Native students, when they do stay out of school, go to libraries,” said Hennepin County Libraries Community Liaison Allison Waukau. She says the libraries work to support these students in a positive, productive way instead of through the truancy system, and encourage school attendance in a place where absent students show up. 

But this type of commitment doesn’t rid the community of the very real concern around punitive responses. 

Shanita Young, program coordinator for Little Earth of United Tribes and another member of the workgroup, says “[truancy] is the government’s way. It’s a worry of ours, taking children away.” But the collaboration and contributions from government entities is, in a way, an acknowledgement from them that there's a better way to address student absenteeism.

Celebrating progress

The workgroup’s marquee initiative is an annual, year-end attendance celebration. In 2019, the last time the group was able to host the in-person event, a standing-room only audience of over 400 came together to celebrate the accomplishments of Native students. The celebration has garnered more attention each year, attracting support from local businesses and community organizations, and has been attended by City Council members. 

Since 2014, the four-year high school graduation rate for Native students in the district has increased from 25 percent to over 40 percent. And while that number is far from what community leaders and the schools would hope for, it demonstrates an ongoing improvement. The number of students in all grades who are recognized at year end for perfect attendance has also increased steadily, to 60 students in 2019.

The community's commitment to this work is yielding new ideas and new initiatives. One example is a new messaging campaign that was designed recently with support from the school district’s American Indian Youth Council, Ogichidaa Oyate (Warrior Nation). Other plans to support Native students in the Minneapolis Public School district continue, with community and affirmation at the forefront of their outreach. 

Louise Matson, executive director of the Division of Indian Work who has been active in the workgroup since its inception, said there’s strength in community intervention. 

“When we work together, pool our resources, we can do more.” 

Links to the organizations mentioned in this story: