For years, the Menominee Indian School District has posted some of the worst test scores and graduation rates in Wisconsin. While the district still struggles, it has been on an upswing, particularly when it comes to graduation rates.
One likely reason - it now employs more teachers who share the students’ culture and history.
Sue Denny worked her way up the ranks at the Menominee Casino, from waitress to overseeing the Black Jack Department. But 15 years ago, the HR director could tell Denny wasn’t happy and suggested she apply for a federal grant aimed at training more Native American teachers.
The young mother of three took a leap of faith and went back to school. Today, Denny teaches language arts at Menominee Middle School.
Like her, nearly all the students are Native Menominee, and she feels the connections.
"My husband has a very large family. I have a very large family. One day I was in the lunchroom, and I walked around and I kind of looked and I’m like, ‘Related to him. Related to her. Related to him," Denny said.
One of Superintendent Wendell Waukau's priorities has been to recruit more Native teachers. Waukau is the first Menominee to lead the school system.
"When I first came here we had well-trained teachers who knew their content but they couldn’t develop relationships with kids. You do want to grow your own, any chance you get," Waukau said.
To grow its own, the district works with the College of Menominee Nation to train more teachers. The district directs candidates to federal grant programs like the one that paid for Denny’s schooling – the Indian Education Professional Development Program, and staff encourages students from a young age to think about education as a career.
The efforts have made a difference. Since Waukau became superintendent a decade ago, the percentage of Native teachers has climbed from about 20 percent to 35 percent.
Perhaps more noteworthy - the graduation rate has soared since 2008, from less than 60 percent to more than 95 percent.
There’s no concrete proof that Native students perform better with Native teachers, but in a place like Menominee, roots run deep. For instance, Ben Grignon returned eight years ago.
"It was actually dreams I started having in graduate school. I had been offered a job in New York City, but I had been dreaming of being at home," Grignon said.
Grignon now teaches Native culture and crafts, such as beading and basketry, at the high school. This particular morning, he’s helping two students make moccasins. One student mentions visiting a relative in prison. It’s the kind of exchange likely to happen with teachers who thoroughly understand life here. They also serve as living proof of the power of education.
Superintendent Waukau says he values non-Native teachers as well, who bring an important outsider’s perspective. Over the next couple months, he anticipates hiring a mix of 10 new teachers, with one crucial understanding.
"In the very beginning, we will say to the teachers: Our kids are not broke. They don’t need to be saved. Build relationships, learn about the culture, learn how out community operates," Waukau said.
That can be done by anyone with empathy and an open mind. But it’s a little bit easier for those who’ve walked the walk.
Sarah Carr is editor of the Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.