UMN researcher combats Native dropout rates

CEHD research associate Jean Echternacht develops curriculum to foster personal development among Native American students.

Carter Blochwitz

A University of Minnesota researcher is working to fight high dropout rates among Native American high school students by fostering personal development.

Minnesota recently ranked near the bottom nationally in high school graduation rates for Native American students. Around half of Native American high school students in Minnesota receive their diplomas, and even fewer attend post-secondary education. 

In an attempt to alter this trend, Jean Echternacht, a University research associate with the College of Education and Human Development, developed “Expanding the Circle,”a high school curriculum based on her work with Native American students.

“The curriculum is concerned with non-academic skills that are needed to make the transition from high school to post-secondary education,” Echternacht said. “These include decision-making, self-advocacy and goal setting; all skills Native kids may not be as likely to learn at home.”

She said the curriculum grew out of a need to familiarize Native American students with education, personal development and professional preparation.

Echternacht gathered data from her work with Native American high school students on the Fond Du Lac Indian Reservation in the late ’90s and several years of one-week summer programs.

The first edition was published in 2002. The second edition, which Echternacht co-authored, was released last month.

Both editions of the curriculum are divided into four sections: discovery, framework, choice and reflection — each focused on aspects of cultural identity.

“These activities make them ask themselves: ‘Who am I as an Indian kid? What is important to me? What do I care about in my culture?’” Echternacht said.

Part of the curriculum involves students developing and sharing stories about themselves, Echternacht said, which is a common cultural tradition. The storytelling is a way for students to express what they have learned and what they want to do with their lives.

“When they get up to speak, they’re terrified,” said Echternacht. “But their growth is always amazing.”

Historical mistreatment of Native Americans is another aspect Echternacht factors into her research.

“There’s a long history of trauma that affected [Native Americans],” she said. “It is still a part of Indian kids’ lives.”

Anna Ross, director of Minneapolis Public Schools Indian Education, said past cultural mistreatment is an underlying cause of high dropout rates.

“This is what happens when you have district and community members that are unaware of the history of Indian boarding schools and mistrust of education,” Ross said. “Historical trauma must be understood to solve these issues.”

After learning of Echternacht’s new curriculum, Ross expressed interest in employing it in her department for high school students.

The new edition of Expanding the Circle will be presented at the National Indian Education Association Convention in early October.