Circles of Reflection: Collaborating to Create School Environments Where Native Students Thrive

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In the United States, there are 574 federally recognized tribes and 63 state-recognized tribes. Each one is unique, and local tribal communities are the keepers of their own knowledge systems, which are specific to their heritage, culture, and language.

The Region 17 Comprehensive Center (CC) at Education Northwest is proud to be part of the National Comprehensive Center’s American Indian and Alaska Native Education Project, which is designed to help state education agencies (SEAs) collaborate with tribal educators and leaders to enhance the learning of Native children and youth.

The Region 17 CC is piloting a facilitated self-reflection process developed through this project. “Circles of Reflection” engages SEA staff in rich, reflective discussions and strategic planning with tribal communities and school leaders to create school environments where Native students thrive. It is also intended to foster more integrated and community-oriented approaches to Native education.

In October, Mandy Smoker Broaddus, Indian education practice expert at Education Northwest, led a group of Idaho SEA personnel in the first circle (or stage) of the process. (Idaho is one of four states field-testing Circles of Reflection.)

Specifically, participants assessed their Native education efforts using a rubric with six categories of inquiry. Three of these categories were integrating Native culture and language into teaching and learning, strengthening tribal consultation and sovereignty, and increasing Native teacher and leader representation.

“We pulled together all the data from those conversations and will bring it to the second circle, where tribal representatives and leaders from school districts serving predominantly Native students can respond by sharing where they do and do not agree about what’s working,” Smoker Broaddus said.

In the second circle, the tribal and local education agency (LEA) participants are asked to take the data and validate, add to, or clarify the SEA’s stated position. The discussion ensures a full view of Native education efforts in the state. This process directs the group toward shared understandings of the current environment and ways Native education efforts can be enhanced.

In the third circle, SEA staff members digest the results and focus on opportunities to collaborate with LEAs and tribal education agencies to achieve mutually identified outcomes. Participants develop a 90-day action plan for short-term goals (e.g., integrating efforts into existing initiatives) and identify more ambitious long-term goals.

In collaboration with Westat and Academic Development Institute, the National Comprehensive Center developed a detailed guide that is being used during the pilot. When the pilot and associated revisions are completed, the National Comprehensive Center anticipates training staff members from all the regional centers on how to conduct Circles of Reflection.

According to Smoker Broaddus, Circles of Reflection supports the Every Student Succeeds Act, which outlines provisions for promoting equitable opportunities for Native students—including the requirement that SEAs consult with tribal education agencies and leaders about education.

“This consultation work can be difficult, and it’s not always fulfilled in the way the law intended,” she said. “Circles of Reflection is designed to get more people to the table to collaborate in an authentic manner.”

Johanna Jones, Indian education coordinator at the Idaho State Department of Education, said she found this to be true. Jones is participating in the pilot with her SEA colleagues, including personnel who oversee curriculum and instruction, assessment, and federal programs.

“This felt like the first time we collaborated on Indian education being the sole focus as a team,” she said. “Often we all get comfortable working in our own lane. This process helped us recognize our shared vision.”

Jones also said the dialogue was eye-opening.

“While I usually feel I am on top of my projects, I now see how my colleagues can further carry this work with me,” she said. “We can all put our heads together and do more for our Native students.”

According to Jones, an important discussion topic during the first circle was tribal sovereignty—the inherent right of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes to govern themselves, a right that was retained since time immemorial, not given.

The Constitution recognizes tribal sovereignty, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld tribal sovereignty in several landmark cases.

“We needed to understand the concept of sovereignty, including how it may be different for each tribe,” Jones said.

In addition, she said Circles of Reflection will help education decision-makers better understand how tribal sovereignty should lead to proactive, varied approaches to reinforce American Indian students’ unique position in the world. The project will also help education leaders understand how utilizing the cultural capital of American Indian students in the classroom can engage, strengthen, and support teaching and learning.

“We have a moral obligation to ensure our Indigenous students are educated in the most appropriate ways,” Jones said. “I think the work we’re doing now is groundbreaking and will shine a light on Indian education issues across the nation.”

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