June 10, 2008

Uproar Initiates Mahnomen School Change

By Mila Koumpilova, Grand Forks Herald, N.D.

Jun. 10--MAHNOMEN, Minn. -- Normalcy has returned to the Mahnomen School District.

Attendance at Monday's board meeting was back to a couple dozen, from more than 80 at a raucous April meeting when the board let first-year High School Principal Susan Ninham go.

The board's decision to not renew Ninham's contract set off an outcry from some residents, who felt she was penalized for her advocacy for native students.

Other residents joined district leaders in maintaining that critics wrongfully injected race in the debate.

Superintendent Jon Kringen says the fallout will yield a constructive legacy.

On Monday, the board approved a project to generate more opportunities for students, almost 70 percent of whom are American Indian, to tap into their native heritage.

The project, conceived in collaboration with the White Earth Reservation Tribal Council, brings in the sort of cultural instruction Ninham supporters charged the district lacked: an Ojibwe language class, a new native history and arts curriculum, and guest lectures on topics from drumming to traditional storytelling.

The initiative has garnered positive reviews, including from some of the district's harshest critics.

They say the project will go a long way toward repairing the relationship between native parents and the district.

"This is a big, important step for this community and this reservation," said Damian Badboy, one of the organizers of a student boycott during the turmoil in April. "It should bring us all back together."

Kringen and Joan LaVoy, the White Earth Tribal Council's director of education, started brainstorming ideas in late April. Kringen quizzed staff about the district's existing cultural offerings.

"I found it was relatively hit and miss, and there wasn't really a comprehensive program," he said.

Students can learn some Ojibwe in a high school-level culture elective, but the teacher is certified to teach Spanish, not Ojibwe.

Almost half of the faculty members address native history and culture in their classrooms but most reported a lack of a comprehensive curriculum and teaching materials.

A survey the administration conducted among students found about 65 percent know little or nothing about the history of White Earth.

More than half said they would register for an Ojibwe class.

The project involves a new yearlong Ojibwe language class in the coming school year as well as a series of seminars on drumming, native regalia and other cultural topics presented by local experts.

The district will also work on developing a new history curriculum covering the White Earth Reservation and tribal government, which administrators hope to implement in the 2009-10 school year.

Badboy praised the school's efforts, adding the residents who protested Ninham's firing deserve some credit.

"They woke up finally," he said of the School District. "What it took was what we did as parents. I think it's going to work out wonderfully, I really do."

Kringen said the project was more than a move to appease upset residents.

"Obviously the concerns of some of our citizens had raised awareness," he said. "It certainly was a factor. I don't think it was the factor."

Kringen takes over the Long Prairie (Minn.) School District this summer. The School Board, with the help of superintendent search firm ADM Group, is looking for Kringen's replacement.

The district has a new principal, lifelong Mahnomen resident and Fertile-Beltrami agricultural education instructor Jeff Bisek.

At the start of Monday's meeting, Dana Goodwin, who has five children in the district, made an emotional appeal to the board to add more cultural instruction to the curriculum. She broke down and wept as she spoke of district ninth-graders learning about the Holocaust but not about the hardships of their ancestors.

"We still exist," she said. "Our language still exists. We're just asking you to recognize our students."

Some School Board members worried about saddling a new superintendent and principal with a project that might be hard to work out on short notice over the summer. But they approved the project unanimously after Kringen argued against postponement.

"It's like the old Chinese proverb, 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,' " Kringen said. "I think this is a first step, I really do."


The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.


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