Mary Jane Oatman-Wak Wak will serve as a liaison between the department and tribal leaders while working to improve student achievement across the state.
"My hope is that this person will be able to go around to the public schools, the ones on the reservations and even the ones that have pockets of native kids around the state, and really be able to find out what's going on," said Coeur d'Alene Tribe Chairman Chief Allan. "This is a step in the right direction. Now we know the state wants to work with us."
Oatman Wak-Wak, who moved to Boise in June to work at the State Department of Education, says Idaho has a long way to go not only in educating Indian kids, but in teaching all kids about Idaho's American Indian population.
Starting with her new Boise neighbors.
At the apartment complex in Boise where Oatman-Wak Wak now lives, some kids were teasing her 5-year-old son about his long hair and braids. She asked them if they knew about Indians, and the kids said they didn't.
Then their mother stepped in with a condescending history lesson: You remember the Pilgrims and the Indians, right, the mother asked. "You've got to take some baby steps," said Oatman-Wak Wak, a member of the Nez Perce tribe.
Oatman-Wak Wak first set out to be an attorney, but college courses in the Nez Perce language inspired her to work for cultural preservation and education. She was working on a master's degree in anthropology at the University of Idaho when the State Department of Education hired her last month.
"If our students are having problems with reading comprehension, a lot of times it's because of what they are reading," Oatman-Wak Wak said.
Idaho tribal leaders and educators at tribal schools "are bringing up the fact that we lack in our history and social studies curriculum an accurate reflection of our nation," she said.
American Indian students across the United States lag behind their peers in test scores and high school completion rates. In Idaho, 32 percent of American Indian third-graders scored below grade level on a recent Idaho Reading Indicator test, compared to 17 percent of students overall. American Indian dropout rates in the 2005-2006 school year were 5.5 percent, twice that of white students. The Indian dropout rate in Idaho has improved in recent years, down from 7.6 percent in 2002-2003.
"You can see their reading scores, you can see the dropout rate, you can see how they perform on the ISAT (Idaho Standards Achievement Test)," said Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. "And there's a need to focus more effort on those children, and I think by creating this position within the department ... we'll be able to open lines of communication between educators and tribal leaders and focus on the progress that Indian children are making in public education."
Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard had requested state funding for the Indian education position in prior years, but Luna went ahead and created the position within the department without asking for new funding.
Oatman-Wak Wak will visit Indian schools to get a clearer picture of what is going on with students, who make up about 2 percent of Idaho students. She will try to bring the concerns of the tribes to the state capital.
"We've got their attention," said Bryan Samuels, principal at Lapwai High School on the Nez Perce Reservation and chairman of the Idaho Indian Education Committee. "Until the test scores become equal to other parts of the state, they cannot close their eyes to this problem."
But raising test scores and increasing cultural relevancy in schools can often be at odds under the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping education reform initiative started during the second Bush administration.
"What schools were faced with then is, 'I got to show this data, I can't hide it anymore,'" Samuels said.
But many states, including Idaho, pushed exit standards and testing too quickly and without the proper preparation of teachers, Samuels said.
A National Indian Education Association official testified before Congress in late April that the U.S. Department of Education advised tribal schools to de-emphasize cultural coursework in favor of reading and math. A nationwide study the association conducted found that American Indian educators were being pushed to teach standardized test content, leaving less time for culturally relevant lessons.
The Coeur d'Alene Tribal School, one of two federal Bureau of Indian Education schools in Idaho, does many cultural activities, but fewer than before. "We're concerned about focusing on our ISAT scores more than that," said Bob Sobotta Sr., principal and superintendent of the school.
The stringent academic reporting requirements of No Child Left Behind helped highlight the problems with education, Samuels said. But the act has never been fully funded.
"The difficulty with No Child Left Behind is it's pretty much weighing the cow, but not feeding the cow," said Jon Reyhner, a professor at Northern Arizona University's College of Education.
Luna—who sold industrial scales—including cattle scales, prior to his entry into education, strongly believes in the data-driven approach to education reform.
But he said he shares Oatman-Wak Wak's vision to "increase the Indian people's love for education and helping them understand the rewards of quality education." And he is willing to ask the state for more funding if she identifies needed programs.
Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and Washington all have Indian education offices in their state education departments.
Oatman-Wak Wak said Idaho needs more Indian teachers, particularly those qualified in native languages. She also wants to develop curriculum to make it better reflect Indian students' lives.
Oatman-Wak Wak's grandparents never went to high school, and her parents did not value education when they were younger, she said. But when she went off to college, both her mother and grandmother went with her and earned their degrees.
Attitudes about education are changing among American Indians, Oatman-Wak Wak said, and so are attitudes within the education system. Samuels said that Oatman-Wak Wak will be a voice for the tribes within state government, a charge that she takes very seriously.
"It takes us Indian people being part of the education system," Oatman-Wak Wak said.