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The Dropout/Graduation Crisis Among American Indian and Alaska Native Students

Authors: Susan C. Faircloth, John W. Tippeconnic, III
Date Published: January 01, 2010

This paper examines the graduation/dropout crisis among American Indian and Alaska Native students using data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Data from 2005 is drawn from the seven states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native students as well as five states in the Pacific and Northwestern regions of the United States. Findings indicate that the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives who graduate continues to be a matter of urgent concern. On average, less than 50% of Native students in these twelve states graduate each year.
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From the Report:

“Native students have the highest dropout rate in the nation. Without education they are disempowered and disenfranchised” (Indian Nations At Risk, 1991).
Although many American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students do well in school - achieving academically, graduating and going on to college or other training programs - a large number of these students are unsuccessful in the educational system. Evidence of fundamental educational failure can be found in schools across the nation, most notably in the form of low graduation and high dropout rates (e.g., Freeman & Fox, 2005). The alarmingly high rates at which American Indian and Alaska Native students drop out or are pushed out of school is not a new phenomenon, but one that has persisted throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries (e.g., Senate Special Subcommittee on Indian Education,1969; Freeman & Fox, 2005).

Situating the Crisis

To fully understand and respond to this crisis, we must first acknowledge the multiple contexts in which education of Native students occurs (e.g., Freeman & Fox, 2005; KewalRamani, Gilbertson, & Fox, 2007). Nationally, there are approximately 644,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Although the majority (approximately 92%) of Native students attend regular public schools, a significant number (approximately 8%) attend schools operated or funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) or by individual tribes (DeVoe & Darling-Churchill, 2008). Although American Indians and Alaska Natives are more likely (46%) to attend rural schools than are their non-Native peers, a majority of Native students live off reservations and an increasing number attend schools in urban areas. Approximately one-third attend schools in which 50% or more of the student population is American Indian/Alaska Native.

In contrast to public schools, BIE schools are primarily federally funded; however, some of these schools are operated by tribes through contracts and grants with the BIE. The BIE currently operates or funds 184 schools and dormitories on 63 reservations in 23 states including: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming (Bureau of Indian Affairs, 2005). Schools operated or funded by the BIE are primarily located in rural areas and small towns and serve students living on or near reservations. Although similar to public schools in terms of staffing and access to Internet and other technologies, a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (2001) cited a need for significant building and structural improvements to BIE school facilities. Further, children attending BIE schools tend to experience poorer educational outcomes than do their American Indian and Alaska Native peers who attend public schools. For example, during the 2003-2004 school year, the BIE reported approximately 60% of its high school students graduated  (DeVoe & Darling- Churchill, 2008). (Bureau of Indian Affairs, n.d.), compared to a national average of 70% (Education Week, 2007).

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