As we begin Native American Heritage month, I truly wish better statistics existed regarding the educational outcomes for Native American youth. This is an opportunity, however, for all of us to step forward and improve the achievement of our Native youth. I have recently joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America as Director of Native American Engagement, and I have been entrusted to bring positive role models and professionally supported one-on-one mentoring to Indian Country. It is clear that this is very much needed.
A brief released in August by The Education Trust, “The State of Education for Native Students,” reveals that in 2011, only 18 percent of Native fourth-graders were proficient or advanced in reading according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to 42 percent of their white classmates. In math, only 17 percent of Native eighth-graders were proficient or advanced, and nearly half (46 percent) performed below even the basic level. For white students, the pattern was almost exactly the reverse, with 17 percent below basic and 43 percent proficient or advanced.
In addition, Native American students’ scores on the NAEP increased from 2005 to 2011 at a slower rate than any other major ethnic group. In 2005, things began looking up: Native students were performing better in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math than African-American and Latino students, but sadly by 2011, that lead had all but disappeared. When our students aren’t succeeding in elementary and high school, a compound impact occurs. About 69 percent of Native high school students graduate in four years, compared to 83 percent of white students. That affects college enrollment: only about half of Native students who graduated in 2004 started college right out of high school, compared to nearly 75 percent of white students.
These statistics can be overwhelming, but this as a prime time to seize an opportunity and improve outcomes for our Native youth.
There are more than 600,000 Native American students in the U.S. and nine out of 10 attend public schools, right alongside other students in their community. The study clearly indicates that the achievement gap is widening in schools for Native students. It’s reasonable to say that making a difference and moving the needle for our tribal children can only come with added support outside the classroom. Big Brothers Big Sisters can provide this support as it has more than 100 years of experience in carefully recruiting caring volunteers and professionally fostering safe mentoring relationships. Big Brothers Big Sisters understands and recognizes the importance of cultural knowledge and the expertise that comes from within communities of color.
Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program works due to its commitment to tracking results. The 2013 Big Brothers Big Sisters Youth Outcomes Survey reflects across-the-board gains for youth a year after participating in a one-on-one mentoring relationship compared to their peers who do not have mentors.
Eighty-five percent of all youth enrolled in the program maintained or improved their educational expectations. Native American youth actually performed better than overall results when it comes to scholastic competency at 87 percent versus the average of 83 percent.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has done an amazing job in supporting Native American youth so far. The commitment to bring tribal input into its programs and services has been a remarkable success within the 26 Native American communities Big Brothers Big Sisters serves. The number of matches facilitated by Big Brothers Big Sisters has ballooned from about 800 in 2008 to 7,500 at present date.
However, there is still a long way to go.
Currently there are more than 500 Native American children waiting to be matched with a mentor, while there are less than 100 Native American volunteers currently waiting to be matched. With this painful discrepancy in mind, it is our responsibility to grow the pool of these volunteers to meet the needs of our tribal youth whose future is at stake. In the spirit of this pledge, we assure our tribal communities during Native American Heritage Month that we will not stop striving in our commitment to bring transformation to our Native youth and families.
Carroll Swan is director of Native American Engagement for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.