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Indian Education Specialist Seeks To Close Achievement Gap

Data from area K-12 schools show an achievement gap between Native American students and other populations, but for the first time in nearly 20 years, Oregon has a full-time Indian education specialist working at the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to improve Native American education around the state. 

April Campbell, former education manager for and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, says the position has only been funded on a part-time basis since the early ’90s, but now that the job is full time, Campbell can devote herself to some of the most important issues she sees in Native American education, including the achievement gap, graduation rates and improving Native American history taught in public schools.

“Because this position hasn’t been fully funded, there are some pending projects that need attention,” Campbell says. “I think there’s this opportunity to build on what’s already existing.”

One of Campbell’s primary concerns is the achievement gap found in American Indian and Alaskan Native students, a current trend in which students have lower grades and graduate rates compared to other subgroups. 

Among Eugene 4J School District students of American Indian or Alaskan Native descent, 48.6 percent did not meet performance standards for math in the 2011-2012 school year, compared to 26.9 percent of white 4J students not meeting the standards, leaving a 21.7 percentage point achievement gap. 

This disparity in 4J is much larger than the math achievement gaps in Bethel and Springfield, which are at 2.8 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively. Of the three districts, Bethel and Springfield have the largest native student population at 2 percent of each of their total populations, with Eugene at 1.6 percent.

In a similar trend, four-year graduation rates for American Indian and Alaskan Native students in Oregon were 27.8 percentage points lower than Asian and Pacific Islander students and 20.4 percentage points lower than white students.

Campbell says one of the reasons her position was funded is that it’s not clear what is causing these discrepancies. “If we can identify the ‘why,’ we may be able to model best practices in districts to improve student outcomes,” she said in an email.

“We’ve gone through reorganization, centering our work more intentionally around student learning,” says Crystal Greene, communications director with ODE. “We have staff focused on the achievement gap, and we’re hoping to hone in on that and make it a focus for the agency.”

Campbell says she’s also revising the Oregon Indian Education State Plan to align with Gov. John Kitzhaber’s 40-40-20 goal, which seeks to achieve a high school graduation rate of 100 percent by 2025.

“This is such a wonderful opportunity,” Campbell says. “I loved working for my tribe, but to have a larger impact — I can’t even put into words what it means to me.”