St. Paul schools focus on American Indian Studies


Two years ago, when Eunice Mang was a sophomore at Harding High School in St. Paul, she was put into an Ojibwe class, although she hadn’t signed up for it.  “I didn’t even know there was a language called Ojibwe,” she said.  When she told her mom about the new class, her mom told her that she in fact had Ojibwe heritage, along with her African, African American, Chinese and Creole roots. 

Mang loved her Ojibwe teacher, Stephanie Schroeder, and enjoyed learning about her culture.  The class went on field trips and learned about Ojibwe culture, and now, two years later, Mang is one of the first two students to graduate in the Graduation with Distinction in American Indian Studies program.  The rigorous honors program is a natural addition to the new American Indian Studies (AIS) program which tracks students  through American Indian magnets at the American Indian Magnet Elementary, Battle Creek Middle School, and Harding High School. AIS draws support from the citywide American Indian Education Program (AIEP), which focuses on American Indian Education throughout the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS).

The American Indian Studies Magnet Elementary School opened in 1972, according to Kathy Denman, supervisor for AIEP. American Indian parents and community members had come together and rallied for the school.

“Our children were doing very poorly,” Denman said, “and there was a high drop-out rate.” Research was coming out at that time, she said, that a school reflecting student’s culture could help create a supportive environment for American Indian students.

The magnet school began as a K-8 elementary school, and in 1994 an American Indian Options Program began at Harding High School, according to Denman. In 1995, the elementary school was shortened to K-6, so an intermediate program was added at Battle Creek Middle School in 1997.

According to Denman, AIEP had a period of struggle between 1999 and 2003 due to a number of factors including a change in the administration and shifts in funding, which she says wasn’t being monitored. Working with AIEP since 2000, Denman says she has worked hard to oversee the program to make sure that money is being allocated correctly.

Three years ago, the three magnet programs at the elementary, middle, and high school began working together under the umbrella of American Indian Studies (AIS). In the last few years, AIS has gained momentum, particularly with the addition of the Graduation with Distinction Program last year. Students in the honors program have the same graduation requirements as their peers, but they elect to learn about Native culture, language, history and art, and are involved with the Native Community, according to a flyer for the program. Students who seek to graduate with distinction (which is noted on their transcripts), take at least two years of Ojibwe or Lakota language, and have to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher. They also must participate in the AIS Knowledge Bowl team and do 20 hours of community involvement, leadership, or volunteering.

Jill Fairbanks, Ojibwe Teacher Stephanie Schroeder, Literature/History Teacher Angie Harper, and Dominique Tomlinson (Photo by Sheila Regan)

Since this will be the first year students graduate in the distinction program, there will be only two graduates, according to Angie Harper, who teaches American Indian literature and history at Harding. Ten students are candidates and more will graduate next year.

Jill Fairbanks, who is half Ojibwe and half German, is a junior in the Graduation with Distinction program.  She has been in AIEP since elementary school, but didn’t attend the American Indian Magnet School or Battle Creek Middle school.  Instead, she received tutoring through AIEP at Hayden Heights Elementary and Hazel Park Middle School.  She chose to attend Harding because of the AIS program, and because of the Ojibwe classes. 

Fairbanks said that she has enjoyed speaking with her grandfather and uncles in Ojibwe.  She even read a speech to them that she had memorized in class.  Learning the language is very important to her, for she believes the Anishinabe axiom: “If the language dies, the people die.”  Fairbanks plans to study microbiology when she goes to college, but she thinks she’ll get a minor or certificate in Ojibwe, so that she can pass it on to her children.

Another student in the AIS program hoping to graduate with distinction is Dominique Tomlinson, who attended Battle Creek Middle School as well.  Tomlinson, who identifies as Ojibwe, gravitates especially toward American Indian arts, and hopes to one day become an art teacher.

Students who will not achieve the Graduation with Distinction can still take  AIS classes. Harper said nearly 200 students at Harding are taking classes from the three teachers who teach Native-focused curriculum, including Dakota and Ojibwe language, Native art, and literature and history. In addition, numerous extracurricular activities include a drumming group that meets weekly after school and the Ojibwe Knowledge Bowl.

Harper and Denman also spoke of working to get the school district to incorporate more Native-focused curriculum into non-AIS classes. Harper said that she has submitted core lessons that have worked well in her literature and history classes to the school administration so that they can be shared throughout the district. The AIEP website lists examples of curriculum developed in the three AIS programs that are available for the district’s use.

The AIS program is open to students of all ethnicities. At Harding, in the non-language classes, non-Native students usually outnumber Native students, as American Indian students make up only one percent of the population, Harper said.

The story is a little bit different at the elementary school, because unlike Battle Creek and Harding, the whole school is dedicated to the AIS program.  Principal Brenda Peltier said that a number of Somali, Hmong, and Latino children attend the school. “We try to integrate the other cultures,” Peltier said.

At the elementary school, Native culture is infused throughout the students’ education. Though the students take core classes such as math, science, reading, and social studies, there is special emphasis on American Indian culture. Students take language and culture classes on Dakota and Ojibwe, read American Indian authors, and participate in drumming and dancing each Friday.

Students also participate in Knowledge Bowls, emphasized in the middle and high schools as well. Peltier said that AIS is adamant about developing strong speakers in their program.

Peltier said that when she came to the school seven years ago, there was no unification with the other two magnet schools. Now that all three schools are linked together, they are able to lobby for more financial support from the district, and market the schools better. The three schools are also able to engage in “curriculum mapping” from school to school as the students pass through. “We have a unified front,” she said.