A program aiming to more than double the number of Native American folks working in local school districts may well be coming to Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Called the Northern California Native Teacher project, the multi-year program would be funded through a $400,000 federal grant and would credential and place 60 Native Americans into local school districts, working as primary and secondary education teachers, counselors and school psychologists. Although the project’s leaders won’t know if the grant is approved until July, they hope to start the program in August and are looking for folks interested in participating.

“There’s a real need to make culturally congruent classrooms where Native students can feel comfortable and see role models of themselves in the school staff,” Jim McQuillen, director of education for the Yurok Tribe, told the Outpost during a phone interview. “Schools right now fall very short of that here in the Humboldt/Del Norte areas.”

In Humboldt and Del Norte, about three percent of K-12 educators are Native American — 38 of Humboldt’s 1,280 teachers and nine of Del Norte’s 268 teachers were of Native descent in 2019, according to the most current data from the California Department of Education. Meanwhile, about 10 percent of students are Native American between the two counties, according to Colby Smart, assistant superintendent of educational services at the Humboldt County Office of Education. The average American Indian student population percentage in California is about half of one percent.

“There is an ugly achievement gap for American Indian students throughout the region — and in California — [American Indian students] are still lagging behind with our graduation rates and our test scores. That’s what we’re trying to close, that gap,” McQuillen said.

The ACLU of Northern California released a “failing grade” report in October last year, which exposed the vast disparities Humboldt’s Native American students face, including larger achievement gaps and higher rates of exclusionary discipline than their non-Native peers. The report cites data backing up these claims, including that in 2019, “Native American high school graduates in Humboldt County are meeting the requirements needed to enroll in a UC or CSU at less than half the rate of all high school graduates in the county,” and that “Indigenous students in Humboldt County experience suspension rates nearly five times the state average for white students.”

Providing students with consistent access to mentors who understand and share their culture and experiences is one of many suggestions outlined in the report.

“The failure of formal education for Native American students in Humboldt County robs entire generations of the ability to access institutions that make decisions that fundamentally impact their lives and communities,” the report reads. “This harms future generations, as hundreds of Native American youth do not see themselves as valued or valuable, nor do they have many role models to follow and be inspired by.”

If approved, this grant, which is being submitted by the Yurok Tribe, as well as another grant aiming to place Native American teachers in business administration positions supported by the Blue Lake Rancheria, would be big steps toward fostering an educational environment where Native students are better supported. Other partners of these efforts include the Hoopa Education Association, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Wiyot Tribe, and the Northern California Indian Development Council.

“Our goal is to get people that first credential and a pathway to working here locally, and then get them into the classrooms,” Jack Bareilles, the grant writer, told the Outpost.

The program would be available to Native Americans, including Alaska Native and members of federally recognized or State recognized Tribes, Native Hawaiians and Native American Pacific Islanders. Participants will need a bachelor’s degree in any subject to participate, however, rising college juniors and seniors are welcome to apply, too. Over the first year organizers are hoping to support 20 people in getting their credential, which would include a monetary stipend of $7,000 to $15,000.

The grant is due in May, and the program’s visionaries are still ironing out logistics. It’s likely that many participants would earn their credentials from Humboldt State, a prospect the university is excited about.

“This is a really big opportunity for us,” Libbi Miller, chair of HSU’s School of Education, told the Outpost. “We are continually looking for opportunities to better serve our tribal communities. But we also know that we continually are looking at our representation in the School of Education, [and] we know that we’re falling short there.”

Of the 200 students enrolled in HSU’s education department, about 25 to 30 are people of color, Miller said. The department offers five credential programs — educational leadership, special education, elementary education, secondary education and liberal studies elementary education. Students in the school of education who come from local communities often stay local after earning their credentials, Miller said.

“The more teachers we can educate who are coming from their communities and working in their communities, the better that those teachers can support students and children in the community,” Miller said. The intention is to attract folks who intend to stay local, and if they don’t, they’ll likely have to return the stipend, Bareilles said.

Miller expressed excitement about the grant, especially because it will financially support students going through the program. Earning a teaching credential requires a year of student teaching, and students sometimes can’t work at the same time. Stipends from the $400,000 grant would help mitigate that obstacle.

“Not only is our university is located on Wiyot land, but we’re surrounded by a huge number of different communities, and we need to do a better job,” Miller said.

Participants in the program also would have the option to earn a Yurok language teaching credential through the Yurok Tribe, which is the largest tribe in California. For this credential pathway, the Yurok Tribe administers a written and oral test, which requires fluency to pass. The state of California issues a Yurok language teaching credential to people who pass.

“We’re asking people to challenge themselves to, if they already have a degree or they’re interested in becoming a teacher, to get on board and become a teacher, help our students,” McQuillen said. “Our interest is to get our kids to succeed, and have more culturally relevant classrooms, and make schools a better place for all kids.”

The Blue Lake Rancheria is submitting a different federal grant proposal, which aims to increase the number of Native Americans serving in administrative roles on school campuses. If approved, the program would support up to 15 Native American folks through earning a master’s degree in building administration, and then would help place them in administrative roles over the next few years. The five-year program would support the education of five people per year over the first three years, and then the last two years would be dedicated to job placement.

For this grant, interested participants must already be teachers, limiting the pool of potential applicants quite dramatically, said Alison Robbins, executive director of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Education Agency. “Trying to find that many people that are interested in becoming building administrators in Humboldt County is going to be difficult,” Robbins said.

For this reason, Blue Lake Rancheria is looking at ways to expand access for this grant to tribes across 21 Northern California counties. “That’s how few Native American classroom teachers there are, which is why the Yurok Tribe’s grant is so important,” Robbins said.

Because the participants will likely be quite spread apart, they’ll probably earn the master’s building administration degree from an online program, Robbins said, but nothing is set in stone yet.

There is no record of how many Native Americans work in building administrative roles in California schools. “In Humboldt County, as far as we have surveyed so far, there are no building administrators [or] district superintendents that are Native American and belong to any of our local tribes,” Robbins said.

“Leadership really sets the tone for a school environment. And so, we feel that by having Native American persons, or other persons of color, even, in positions of authority, that they can help lead the education system, towards a more inclusive, diverse curriculum and education for students,” Robbins said, who expressed appreciation toward the US Department of Education and Office of Indian Education for recognizing the need for more Native role models in schools.

More information about programs offered through the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Education Angency can be found here.

The Humboldt County Office of Education is thrilled about these initiatives. “Our Native American population is really extremely high. We have a really rich, vibrant tribal community up here,” Colby Smart at HCOE told the Outpost. “So anything we can do to build up the workforce, to help develop inclusive and representative classrooms, I see that as a real positive.”

Between local tribes, school districts, HSU, and HCOE, these programs would be extremely collaborative efforts.

“When our community embarks on projects such as these, they are most successful when they are comprised of multiple agencies and multiple partners, and this is a great example of that,” Smart said. “You’ve got the involvement of the university, local school districts, tribal organizations, and so, to me, those are the kinds of projects that really end up making big, big impacts in our community.”

HCOE will help, too, by providing professional development support and by assisting with recruitment efforts.

“Creating a classroom environment that’s reflective of the communities is extremely important, not just for that targeted population but for all populations of kids,” Smart said. In addition to that, Smart values the program because it will likely produce teachers who are guaranteed to stay in the area. The county anticipates hiring about 50 new teachers per year over the next few years, Smart said.

“Because many of the students are being recruited from within the counties, it’s highly likely that they’re not going to leave the county, right, so they already have a vested interest in the community,” Smart said. “And so I see that as a big, big benefit.”

People interested in participating in the Northern California Native Teacher project are invited to fill out this interest form. If the grant is approved, filling out this form does not guarantee you a slot in the program or lock you into participating; it is simply meant to identify interested folks.

“We talk equity all the time, which we should,” Bareilles said. “But the real impact is when we have diversified our workforce so that our workforce looks like our kids.”


DISCLOSURE: The Blue Lake Rancheria is a minority owner of Outpost parent company Lost Coast Communications, Inc.