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‘The place where we help each other’

A northern Wisconsin Ojibwe language school works to train Native American educators, with an assist from Edgewood College.

  • 9 min to read
‘The place where we help each other’

When Waawaakeyash, or Keller Paap, and Lisa LaRonge first opened the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School in Hayward in northwestern Wisconsin in 2000, it felt less like a school and more like a “pilot program.”

The married couple, some elders and eight kindergarteners gathered in a small conference room. None of them had teaching experience. Waawaakeyash, now the school’s executive director, wasn’t entirely fluent in the Ojibwemowin language himself, and his lesson plans largely consisted of outdoor activities with students or cultural outings with their families.

Since then, Waadookodaading — “the place where we help each other” — has developed into a K-8 school with over 10 teachers and teacher trainees and over 70 students. Through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Lac Courtes Oreilles Ojibwe School, it has the sovereign autonomy to implement a full culture and language immersion program on a campus that is physically connected to LCO Ojibwe School’s elementary, middle and high school classrooms but remains systematically its own.

“I’ve seen over the last 20 years people who’ve come through here and watched families grow up,” Waawaakeyash said. “They are taking a lot of these core values as an Ojibwe person ... to stay the course of their identity within the mainstream world and what they choose to do in advanced studies. That’s the ultimate impact we want.”

The school is located on the reservation of the Lac Courtes Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a federally recognized band of the Ojibwe Nation with over 7,000 registered members. Waadookodaading is committed to the preservation of the Ojibwe language and culture, a stark contrast from a state landscape that continues to see academic achievement gaps for Native American students in schools served primarily by white teachers and administrators.

Aside from a few language courses, northern Wisconsin’s six school districts serving the highest Native American student populations employ almost exclusively western models of education. They employ a total of only one Native American part-time administrator and 25 licensed staff, or 4.3% and 0.4% of administrators and staff, according to the Department of Public Instruction’s 2016 demographics data.

Tribal Lands of Wisconsin

The Lac Courtes Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is one of Wisconsin's federally recognized bands of the Ojibwe nation. It has over 7,000 registered members.

Districts don’t fare much better statewide. Though 28.8% of public school students are not white, DPI data shows that only 9% of administrators and 4.8% of licensed staff are people of color. This means that, across the state, districts would have to replace 800 administrators and 16,000 staff with people of color to reflect the student population.

Roy Jonjak, educational planner and grant writer at Lac Courtes Oreilles, regularly returns to these numbers as the looming goal of education reform in Wisconsin.

“Any educational institution should see that as an opportunity at a time they’re losing white students as well as Native students,” he said. “Their models are simply not working.”

To tackle this opportunity in a more bite-sized effort, Waadookodaading partnered with Madison’s Edgewood College last year to establish a proposal for the Waadookodaading Educator Institute. The program will train teachers within Waadookodaading and LCO Ojibwe School classrooms to be licensed and work in schools serving high Native student populations. Within a decade, the school aims to license at least 20 administrators and 100 instructional/pupil services staff to be placed in schools with the strongest need.

Waadookodaading plans to submit a final proposal within a few weeks outlining WEI’s teacher accreditation model to DPI.

Drawing loosely from the Edgewood School of Education’s credit system for undergraduates, the team is developing alternate ways of licensing teachers of the same quality while maintaining a commitment to an indigenous, “on-the-job training” approach, said Brooke Ammann, Waadookodaading’s director of institutional development. It puts forth field-based experiences, like syrup making, to replace natural science coursework, or language specialists to determine Ojibwe language proficiency.

“What we’re advocating for is that, in our experience, our best teachers have come from being mentored on the spot in a class with students,” Ammann said. “I’m an educator, I went to ed school, but those people are out of touch with reality. They’re not there every day seeing the real needs of classrooms.”

Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language School

Waadookodaading shares a campus with the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School, which is located on the tribal band's reservation in northern Wisconsin.

The Waadookodaading team tried proposing the idea to other higher education institutions, but the Edgewood School of Education was the first to demonstrate a desire to listen to and discuss Waadookodaading’s needs, administrators said.

Edgewood was clear from the start that “we’re not here to tell you what you need to do, we’re here to support what you do,” Waawaakeyash said.

Jonjak first reached out to Tim Slekar, who is in his seventh year as dean of Edgewood’s education school, about three years ago. Edgewood appealed to Jonjak for its bilingual/bicultural teacher licensure program and emphasis on cultural experience over textbook learning, Jonjak said. With requirements like 50 hours of multicultural field experience for education students, according to the proposal, “few colleges go as far as Edgewood” when it comes to cultural training.

“Edgewood gets to learn way more about and bring back more gifts from the partnership than LCO will receive from us,” Slekar said. “It’s about validating, lifting up and putting forward indigenous ways of knowing as a legitimate discourse in education and, in fact, might even help restore and even help western education learn some of the things that we’re not very good at doing.”

The proposal reflects a year’s worth of collaboration between Waadookodaading and Edgewood and draws heavily from DPI data that paints a grim picture of public K-12 education in Wisconsin — more specifically, Ojibwe students in northern Wisconsin’s public school districts.

At the LCO Ojibwe Language School, eighth graders have a choice between continuing at LCO or moving to Hayward High School. Nearly twice as many end up at Hayward, largely driven by athletic programs or broader academic curriculum, Jonjak said. Once there, only about 70% of Hayward’s Native American student population graduated in the 2018-2019 school year, compared to over 97% of white students.

Within these circumstances, Waadookodaading offers parents a third option of sending their children to a school that prioritizes both language immersion and academic rigor. Through WEI, Waadookodaading hopes to place at least 75% of its graduates as licensed administrators and staff in schools that serve significant — 5% to 100% — Native American student populations.

“What’s unique about Waadookodaading is our mission is to preserve the language and culture but to make kids ready for 21st-century life,” Jonjak said. “It shouldn’t be an either-or. Let’s integrate enough of the western curriculum that they’re getting just as good an education in core subjects and are as good in English as they are at Ojibwe.”

For Mark Montano, a Waadookodaading board member and parent, sending his son to a full immersion school was an easy decision.

Montano, who also has two older children in their 20s, said Waadookodaading allows his son the opportunity to engage with language that he and older Native American students didn’t have as much access to, he said. He sometimes catches himself remembering Ojibwe words through conversations with his kindergartener.

“Either the language is going to survive or it’s not,” Montano said. “It’s important to me as a parent that he knows who he is and where he comes from, and that’s also supported by learning the language.”

Waadookodaading Ojibwe School

A hallway in the Lac Courtes Oreilles Ojibwe School.

Edgewood College is one of over a thousand higher education institutions accredited through the Higher Learning Commission — an institutional standard for colleges and universities across the United States. It is through the HLC that schools grant degrees and are also placed among comparable institutions through the annual U.S. News rankings.

Waadookodaading, however, is eyeing accreditation through both the HLC and the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, a system that is “framed by the Indigenous philosophy(ies) of the native community it serves” and “integrates Indigenous culture, language, and worldviews into programming,” according to the WINHEC website. In 2018, the University of Hawai’i at Hilo’s indigenous teacher education program became the first in the world to receive WINHEC accreditation.

While receiving dual accreditation would ideally “combine the best of traditional teaching … with the best of western science and humanities,” Jonjak said, both teams agree the HLC can be prescriptive in ways that don’t align with WEI’s needs. They will soon begin the WINHEC accreditation process, which remains their priority and may take about five years, and in the meantime are hopeful that DPI will greenlight the licensure proposal.

“I don’t see the benefit of the Higher Learning Commission in regards to what we’re trying to do,” Slekar said. “Getting (WINHEC)’s stamp of approval says to me we’re doing the work we’re supposed to be doing.”

EDGEWOOD

Staff members involved in planning the Waadookodaading Educator Institute gather for a meeting at Edgewood College. The two schools have been in collaboration for about one year.

In 2018, three years after submitting to the U.S. Department of Education a teacher equitable access plan addressing student achievement gaps, the department became the first in the nation to negotiate Memorandums of Understanding and Mutual Support with tribal governments, including Lac Courtes Oreilles. The MOUs aimed to build "respectful and cooperative communication" between governments and provide cultural awareness training to DPI staff and address historical achievement gaps.

Subsequent legislation now also specifically recognizes Lac Courtes Oreilles’ rights to endorse Ojibwe language and culture educators without requiring an existing license.

WEI falls under what DPI calls “experimental or innovative programs,” which are approved by the state superintendent. If a program does not comply with DPI requirements, it may still apply for approval under separate, less traditional standards, such as developing new approaches to teacher preparation or meeting special needs of specific student demographics. In recent years, DPI has increased flexibility for institutions beyond universities — including schools and school districts — to develop their own programs, which Jonjak said was a major catalyst for WEI.

“Our biggest concern is our language standards,” Ammann said. “We have found that when we stay true to those and we make them the focus, we exceed any other measure of educational attainment.”

Once the proposal is officially submitted, DPI will have 60 days to review it. It generally does not reject applications for new licensing programs although, following the final proposal, it may ask for further documentation or revision.

During the past year, Slekar said, DPI has demonstrated an “extremely vetted interest” in the project. Beth Giles, DPI director of education outreach and partnership, has been present at WEI meetings since the project’s inception.

“We’re definitely moving toward being more of a thought partner and innovative partner rather than a large bureaucracy that tells people how to do things,” Giles said. “I want to work alongside institutes of higher ed, not in a top-down way, but really link arms with the people around this table and at other institutes of higher ed that want to do new things.”

EDGEWOOD

Tim Slekar is in his seventh year as dean of Edgewood's School of Education.

Emily Zoeller, Edgewood’s director of ESL and bilingual education programs, was “blown away” by a visit to Waadookodaading earlier this year. Seeing the visual language supports across classroom walls, or teachers correcting students away from using English, she was struck by the parallels between the Ojibwe language immersion model and her past work with Spanish-speaking students in Madison.

“I couldn’t help but think about all of the strategies and the pedagogy that overlapped between the two,” Zoeller said. “How could Edgewood maybe be the conduit for broader collaboration among immersion teachers?”

Since their initial meetings, the Edgewood team has attended regular meetings at the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, about four-and-a-half hours north of Madison, to develop the WEI program. Though Edgewood has been a partner from the start, its role has been primarily to listen and provide the resources it can, Zoeller said. It will ultimately be Waadookodaading — its teachers, resources and 20 years of experience — that becomes the licensing agency.

WEI will be based in Waadookodaading and may ultimately become self-sustaining, but Slekar said he hopes the program’s values can become transferable to other campuses, including Edgewood’s.

“When this goes forward, can this be something that can be replicated across the state of Wisconsin?” Slekar said. “This really puts DPI in the position to lead the way nationally in looking at language and culture. We might call it a teacher license, but DPI now is not just doing the simple licensing, but engaging in the deep equity work that actually goes with that.”

Developing the WEI curriculum will be a “mixed bag,” Waawaakeyash said. That’s how it has been all along at Waadookodaading, as teachers learned to balance their own teaching materials with outside sources and continue educating themselves as immersion teachers.

Still, he remains cautious about working with an outside institution. The partnership is less of a necessary step in meeting Waadookodaading’s goals and more of a mutual opportunity to engage in efforts to innovate education, he said.

“We don’t need Edgewood, we don’t want to have to go anywhere, we don’t want to have to ask anyone to do what we want to do,” Waawaakeyash said. “But we see a unique opportunity to work with programs who are willing to take a chance, who are willing to push what they can do.”

While he hopes to one day expand these values out to the wider education system with a more robust body of educators, Waawaakeyash’s current priority is extending the Waadookodaading model into the LCO college and advanced degrees. Both Ammann and Waawaakeyash envision a “birth to grave” education model for Waadookodaading that can regenerate language education through generations.

The WEI project, then, reflects not only a desire for more culturally competent teaching, but also a broader hope for Native American students to further Waadookodaading’s mission and begin seeing education as a desirable career path.

After centuries of disenfranchisement in western education systems, Ammann said, Native American communities are in a “difficult place” when pursuing teaching professions, which still can hold negative connotations and uphold oppressive narratives. It was not until the late 1970s that compulsory education of Native Americans was outlawed and the Indian Education Act of 1972 granted control over sovereign educational affairs.

Ammann looks to the earliest teachers at Waadookodaading, like Waawaakeyash, who never planned to become an educator in the first place. Thanks to their work, she said, she has recently started seeing a “turning point” as younger students want to become teachers themselves.

“People were drawn to this teaching because of this approach and because of this model,” Ammann said. “They inspired a whole generation of people saying, ‘I do want to be a teacher, and I want to be one in this environment.’”

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