Native education advocates plan to rally on November 16, calling for Seattle Public Schools to restore American Indian Heritage High School.
The rally is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at the school district offices, 2445 3rd Ave S., Seattle. The rally will be followed by testimony during the school board meeting.
During its heyday, American Indian Heritage High School had a 100 percent graduation and college attendance rate. But in the early 2000s, the school building’s condition steadily declined as funding for maintenance was directed elsewhere. By 2013, students were sent to other schools and the Heritage School program dismantled, and in 2015 the building was demolished to make way for construction of a new school.
The school district named the new school Robert Eagle Staff Middle School, after the late Lakota principal of Indian Heritage High School. While naming the school after Eagle Staff was celebrated by the Native community, Native education advocates say a namesake school is not enough to engage Native students and close the achievement gap.
“Restoring Indian Heritage High School … is a viable solution to the current dismal 51.5 percent graduation rate for Native learners,” the Urban Native Education Alliance stated in an announcement about the rally.
“We have a moral obligation to address the crisis in Indian Education, and Seattle Public Schools has a legal responsibility to educate and graduate our Native learners. Our youth are our priority: we are invested in their academic, socio-cultural success,” UNEA said. “Native students experience racism, exclusion, and invisibility in SPS, as evidenced by countless testimonies, interviews, and reports from youth, children and families, and SPS data on Native learners reflects these experiences. Our goal is to work collaboratively, cooperatively, and with shared commitment to co-design a community based model as an alternative Native-focused school for Native and non-Native learners.”
The UNEA board—Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala; Vicki Pinkham, Tlingit; Gwen Lee; David Allen-Hill, Klamath; and Herb Le Beau, Lakota—envisions a school “with a curriculum, instruction, environment, and climate which nurtures, supports, and provides a rigorous academic learning experience.”
They write: “Imagine a school with Native professionals, cultural experts, role models, resources, and services all geared to assist Native youth with necessary readiness to achieve academic excellence, while in tandem fostering healthy tribal identity and connection with our cultural values, beliefs and worldview. Attaining cultural knowledge and academic success are not mutually exclusive; we have many tribal schools in our region serving as examples of success.”
The old American Indian Heritage High School was more than a school. A portion of Licton Spring, a spring important in Duwamish Tribe history, flows across the site. Noted Apache/Haida artist Andrew Morrison painted exterior wall murals depicting important figures in Northwest Native history, including Chief Si’ahl, or Seattle, for whom the city is named. Those murals were deemed by the community and school district to be of such importance that they were retained and incorporated into the new school. And UNEA conducted its Clear Sky program for Native youth there; Clear Sky volunteers provide tutoring, homework assistance, mentorship, and advocacy, and 100 percent of its students graduate from high school.
Advocates say restoring American Indian Heritage High School would similarly engage Native students with the same results of the Eagle Staff era. They will ask Seattle Public Schools administrators to schedule a planning meeting with school board members, budget and finance staff, and Native educators.
“The Indian Heritage High School planning meeting would be a tremendous step forward in addressing SPS failures and effectively address and respond to the downward spiral of performance and graduation rates,” advocates wrote. “We would appreciate authentic, cooperative, and collaborative engagement in order to effectively address the crisis in Indian Education.”
According to the Seattle Public Schools’ 2015 “Health Inequality Report,” Native students and other students of color may encounter “lower expectations, inadequate instruction and support from their schools and teachers; lower-level content; less-experienced and qualified teachers; and/or inferior or limited curriculum materials.”
The report added, “Schools also reflect the culture of white, middle-class society, which can lead to a disconnection between students who come from different cultures and family conditions and traditional school structure and expectations.”
The school district’s Achievement Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee made 10 recommendations to close the achievement gap, including “enhancing the cultural competence of current and future educators and the cultural relevance of curriculum and instruction,” “expanding pathways and strategies to prepare and recruit diverse teachers and administrators,” and “exploring innovative school models that have shown success in closing the achievement gap.”
One of those innovative school models, advocates say, was American Indian Heritage High School.