Miccosukee Indian School Jazmin Gonzalez Pillows
Miccosukee Indian School
First Grade teacher at the Miccosukee Indian School Jazmin Gonzalez helps her students create pillows with traditional patchwork.

Miccosukee Tribe Makes History With Waiver from No Child Left Behind

Tanya H. Lee

The Miccosukee Indian Tribe of Florida made history June 1 when the U.S. Interior and Education departments officially granted the Miccosukee Indian School a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements.

While such waivers have been provided to several states, the Miccosukee Indian School is the first tribally-controlled education system to receive one.

“Indian education is littered with broken promises, unfulfilled promises and empty promises. Not today. Today we celebrate a promise kept, a promise of higher academic standards and achievement, a promise of Miccosukee survival and identity, a promise of self-determination and sovereignty, a promise of a better education for our Indian students,” said Charles ‘Monty’ Roessel, Navajo, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, at the signing event.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Miccosukee Indian School Principal Manuel Varela, Miccosukee Indian Tribe of Florida Chairman Colley Billie and Education Secretary Arne Duncan pose after the secretaries signed the NCLB waiver for the tribe in Jewell’s office on June 1. (U.S. Department of the Interior)

The waiver permits the tribe to set its own definition of AYP (adequate yearly progress) and to determine what tests it will use to measure children’s academic achievements instead of being bound by the federal standards and assessments specified in the 2001 NCLB act.

The tribe has worked toward this moment with DOI and the Education Department for several years. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that in order to get the waiver, the tribe has committed to maintaining high standards in language, math, and science achievement; to integrating language and cultural instruction that will help students be successful in academics; and to cutting the achievement gap in half over the next six years.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell emphasized that there is nothing about the Miccosukee education program that is less rigorous than what is required by federal law. She noted that the “assessments they have chosen raise the standards above what the state of Florida would require.”

Miccosukee Indian School Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Julia Guy does Math warm-ups with her students. (Miccosukee Indian School)

Miccosukee Chairman Colley Billie said, “Our standards include rigorous educational benchmarks and reflect the unique history, heritage, tradition, language, culture and values of the Miccosukee Indian Tribe and our people.”

He is especially proud of the role language holds in the tribe’s educational system. “We have created a program that assesses language proficiency and complements core subjects such as math and language arts. Moreover, the standards reflect the unique cultural and language aspect of the Miccosukee tribe. The overwhelming majority of our people are fluent in the Miccosukee language and use it in their daily lives. It is of the utmost importance to our community that our language and culture continue to thrive with future generations… Our language captures concepts that don’t exist in English. It often offers the means of telling Miccosukee history, speaking to our ancestors, understanding the scientific and natural world and much more.”

Miccosukee Indian Tribe of Florida Chairman Colley Billie said most tribal members are fluent in the Miccosukee language, which is used and taught in the tribe’s pre-K through 12 school. (U.S. Department of the Interior)

The tribe has also focused strongly on traditional understandings of science and the environment. Billie said, “Our new standards firmly introduce science into the AYP framework. While the Everglades is home to our people, it is also a living classroom for our students. Miccosukee students have the unique opportunity to learn about the natural world, wildlife, ecology through our tradition in our own backyard.”

The tribe’s goal of cutting the achievement gap in half in the next six years is extraordinary. Public and tribal schools have been trying to cut the achievement gap between American Indian/Alaska Native students and white students, and to increase high school graduation rates for Native students for years.

RELATED: New Questions for an Old Problem in Indian Country

Although the AI/AN graduation rate increased 4 points from 65 percent to 69 percent between 2011 and 2013 (compared to 81 percent nationally), the achievement gap has remained intransigent.

Ursela Billie teaches students how to make traditional beadwork. (Miccosukee Indian School)

In the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gap in mathematics scores for fourth grade between white and AI/AN students was 23 points in 2013, a little lower than it was in 2000, but higher than in 2003. For fourth grade reading, the gap was 27 points in 2013, 5 points more than in 2000.

Miccosukee Indian School Principal Manuel Varela says the school has been working for the past four years on creating a model program that will cut the achievement gap. More targeted instruction and a team approach to teaching have already cut the gap, and he expects that to continue as he and his teachers perfect the model.

The school has created smaller instructional groupings of students to target the needs, abilities and learning style of each individual. And they have created instructional, curriculum, assessment, content area, and grade level teams that periodically meet and discuss each student. “This is education one student at a time,” Varela says.

Miccosukee Indian School Science Teacher Marge Arce works with student Nathaniel Jim on his Science Fair Project. (Miccosukee Indian School)

The implications of the Miccosukee Tribe’s achievement in creating an academically challenging, culturally-responsive education program that has won federal approval is not lost on Jewell or Duncan, who have pledged their support. “This is a step that will change the future of Indian education and Indian children,” said Jewell.

Duncan said, “This is the first time we have granted a waiver to a tribe. To have the Miccosukee Tribe step up and provide this leadership is a really, really big deal.” If the tribe can meets its goals, its model will have significant implications not only for Indian education, but for education across the country, he said.

RELATED: NCLB Gets an F. What's Next in Your Child's Classroom?

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