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Ojibwe immersion program coming to Duluth School District

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In a step being heralded as a "big move" by one American Indian educator, the Duluth School Board has approved an Ojibwe immersion program for one of its elementary schools.

The Duluth News Tribune reports the program will start with kindergarteners. Each year, another round of students will be added, until the program is represented by one class in each of the six elementary school grades.

The inaugural Ojibwe immersion class of 15-20 students will replace a regular kindergarten section. Teaching would be entirely in Ojibwe; the only exception being time with specialists, such as physical eduction, the News Tribune notes.

The paper says the cost of a teacher – who needs to speak Ojibwe fluently – is already built into the school's budget. Money from the state's Achievement and Integration program would likely cover additional costs, the paper says.

The News Tribune says a host school has not yet been chosen. But Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford tells the paper several have shown interest.

Edye Howes, the Duluth school district's coordinator of the American Indian education program, said before the vote that approval would be a "big move."

"Historically, the Duluth American Indian community hasn’t had much trust in Duluth public schools," Howes told the paper. "This would be a statement: Look what we’re willing to do to start strengthening and building a relationship."

The approval, passed unanimously by the board, comes shortly after the state released 2013 graduation rate numbers. Overall, the graduation rate for American Indians went up to 48.75 percent – a jump of more than 3 percent.

But in the Duluth school district, the number actually fell – from 46.5 percent in 2011-12, to just 32.5 percent in 2012-13. That compares to an overall graduation rate of 78.6 percent in the district (see the graphic from the Minnesota Report Card below).

Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said at a recent school board meeting the Ojibwe immersion program would "go a long way" to improving those graduation rates – and the school district's future.

Howes tells the News Tribune she visited the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe immersion school in Hayward, Wisconsin, saying the students' success there shows early immersion can help success carry through to later grades.

The Indian Country Today Media Network had non-profit education advocacy group MinnCAN to look at American Indian schools doing well in Minnesota. One of the highlighted schools is Anishinabe Academy in Minneapolis, which teaches students from pre-K through eighth grade. The publication says, after a year in High 5 at Anishinabe Academy, 83 percent of the American Indian students are ready for kindergarten. That compares to just 47 percent for other native children.

Danielle Grant, director of Indian Education for Minneapolis, told the publication the school has an Ojibwe and Dakota language classroom – which she believes makes a huge difference.

"A lot of research shows that second language acquisition for young children is really important for brain development," she said.

MinnCAN also highlighted Churchill Elementary in Cloquet, and the Detroit Lakes School District as successful American Indian-centric schools in the state.

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