Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
When Michelle Haskins joined the education department at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College three years ago, the goal wasn’t to help students earn bachelor’s degrees. More often, it was to certify teachers already working at the local Head Start program.
Head Start has grown from to serve nearly 44,000 children of American Indian and Alaska Native heritage today.
The federal program — which offers early childhood education, health, nutrition, and other services to low-income children and families — is a staple in tribal communities and has become a leading employer for those who wish to stay in their communities.
Tribal colleges often serve as a key resource for those Head Start teachers, who are often hired and then asked to get the certifications or degrees needed to meet qualification requirements.
However, taking classes while also teaching full time adds challenges to a community that already faces roadblocks to completing higher education.
For instance, when Haskins started, all the certification classes had to be offered on Saturdays, as most of the students were too busy with their jobs on the weekdays.
Since then, Haskins has worked with the remote Head Start program in northwest Wisconsin to use Fridays for professional development, including the certification courses at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College.
Still, the college saw overall enrollment drop even before the pandemic.
To help recruit more students, it led a “Knock and Talk” campaign three years ago, Haskins says, telling families about all the courses and majors they were offering and asking for feedback about programs they could add.
“We went right into the communities we serve, and invited them back into our college,” Haskins says, and enrollment has stabilized since.
Coordinating Head Start certifications is a challenge for a number of colleges that rely heavily on education programs for enrollment.
Hours and locations can vary greatly between teachers and nursery staff, who also need to take certification courses.
The College of Menominee Nation had an enrollment in the 600s before the pandemic and is now down to roughly 300 students.
Education programs are essential to the college, since about a third of its students are taking education courses.
To make sure their needs are met, it has offered classes in the early mornings before preschool starts or afterwards in the late afternoons, all while trying to fit each cohort’s changing schedules.
That can make for terribly long days for working students, says Kelli Chelberg, an education faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation.
Out of necessity, tribal colleges have experience getting creative with their course offerings.
For years, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College has offered digital Canvas courses and used Zoom to expand its classes to far-flung outreach centers and satellite campuses.
That experience made the transition to distance learning easier amidst pandemic closures, showcasing the resiliency of the college’s programs: “We didn’t have as many hiccups as other areas may have had,” Haskins says.
Representation in the Classroom
Tribal communities, like many rural ones, often have difficulty finding qualified teachers who also share the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the students they serve.
Across America, roughly 8 of 10 public school teachers identified as non-Hispanic White in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year of available National Center for Education Statistics demographic data.
“While the share of Black, Hispanic and Asian American teachers has increased in recent decades, it has not kept pace with the rapid growth in the racial and ethnic diversity of their students,” writes Katherine Schaeffer, while analyzing that data for Pew Research.
Non-white students are expected to grow to 54% by 2024. And who teaches them matters, a number of experts say: Some research has shown that students, especially boys, see better education outcomes when teachers share their race or gender.
In rural tribal communities that struggle with low college attainment rates, having teachers with cultural competence and shared experiences could make a significant difference for students.
The College of Menominee Nation offers courses in culturally responsive projects and programming, as well as language immersion courses that allow future teachers to get even more fully steeped into the cultures of the students they hope to teach.
Haskins is using a Tribal College Fund grant to build an elementary school curriculum rooted in the Ojibwe worldview, while also using another grant from the fund to build a classroom rooted in indigenous tradition, culture, and art.
She is well-suited for the job, a member of the Wolf clan of the Lake Superior Ojibwe who worked a decade as an Ojibwe Immersion Educator before earning her master’s degree in Language Revitalization from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2015.
“The textbooks we have are founded in Western ideology and Western theory,” Haskins says. “We don’t throw them out: We take them, we utilize them, but we then make comparisons and find similarities, rather than focus on differences.”
That work, plus a grant that will help her extend the tribal college’s Ojibwemowin language courses from two years to three, could create a more organic student-to-teacher pipeline in her community.
“We’re fighting to keep our language alive,” Haskins says, admitting it isn’t easy to preserve their culture when most fluent Ojibwemowin speakers have already passed away.
New immersion programs, including her work and those at a local K-12 school, have given the community some hope. “Now, with the ability to create some kind of programming to train teachers, we can grow our own,” Haskins says.
More Rural Higher Ed News
The national landscape of book bans. A recent report by PEN America found bans in 138 school districts covering nearly 4 million students across 32 states, with Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania seeing some of the most bans from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022.
- Why it matters: While the report doesn’t say what percentage of these districts are rural, the vast majority of book bans are happening in Southeastern states with significantly large rural populations. What’s more, about three quarters of the at least 300 national groups and local chapters pushing these bans have formed since 2021 — adding some statistical evidence to the idea that book bans are truly on the rise.
A master’s degree in climate change and social justice? The private Vermont Law and Graduate School in South Royalton — an unincorporated village a half hour from Lebanon, New Hampshire — is launching an environmental public policy school. Its master’s degrees focus on environmental justice, sustainable agriculture, clean energy, and animal protection, all through the lens of racial and economic justice.
- Why It Matters: The Vermont law school already boasts a highly-touted environmental law program, and its new “School for the Environment” is a reminder of the increasing role rural colleges can play in advancing equity and environmental issues.
Funding rural learner research. Ascendium is inviting researchers to submit a Letter of Intent (LOI) for work that centers rural learners from low-income backgrounds. Grants will be up to $500,000 for up to three years in length, with an Oct. 7 deadline. You can learn more, and apply, here. (Ascendium sponsors my work and this newsletter — read our editorial independence policy here).