Since its founding in 1976, the vision of the Grand Rapids Public School Native American Education program has been to support students in achieving “gakina agegoo ji-ni-minoowazhiwebag,” a balanced and productive future. As West Michigan’s only school-based program serving Native American children, NAEP serves Native American students within GRPS as well as their parents and community members throughout Greater Grand Rapids. NAEP is a federally funded Title VI program. Any GRPS student grades K through 12 identified through the Student Eligibility form (506) can participate. One goal of the program is to increase graduation rates.
“All of our teachers are Native Americans,” says Miranda Recollet, NAEP program specialist and Anishinaabe who hails from Canada. “With that kind of background and knowing what comes with being Native American, we are able to connect with these students on a deeper level."
After school programming raises Native American students’ awareness and experience of their culture, Michigan’s first languages, and tribal heritage while reinforcing lessons their teachers are presenting in the classroom. For example, when students were studying conductors as part of their science curriculum, the NAEP after-school programming shared lessons on the conductive properties of copper, a metal that has great spiritual and practical significance in Native American history and culture.
“Having an understanding of what it means to be Native American within West Michigan or Grand Rapids is really important,” Recollet says. “It is important that we [NAEP staff] have this background as we often liaison with counselors and teachers. We understand what the student’s or family’s mentality is.”
NAEP’s College Leadership Group assists ninth through 12th grade students with financial aid, college campus visits, and preparing for college. And, NAEP also involves students, their families, and the broader community in language courses, youth drum groups, and school assemblies — fall Michigan Indian Day festivities, and spring Pow Wows where the Maampi-E-Oujiijig Anishinaabe Binoojiinyag (native children who originate from here) make regalia and dance.
“We have very close connections with local tribes, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Pottawatomi (Gun Lake Tribe) and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi,” Recollet says. “And, we have a very close relationship with the 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan.
In addition to formal programming during the school day and after school, NAEP program staff make themselves available when questions or concerns about Native American issues come up within the district.
“We always try to make ourselves available,” Recollet says. “We are Native Americans but don’t try to speak for all Native Americans. If someone in the community that can help has a unique expertise, we connect them with that teacher, student, family, or parent.”
While recent headlines have communicated the disparities in health, income, and experience of police brutality in our African American and Latinx populations, Native Americans are for the most part overlooked. Statistics for disparities that Native Americans experience in health, income, and police brutality are equally alarming. Recollet sees the GRPS NAEP as one small way of addressing and overcoming those disparities here in West Michigan.
“The goal of our program is to connect with our Native American community and create programming that encourages culture and inclusivity. GRPS has really been quite amazing with that support,” she concludes. “We like to really ensure that we are providing that history, culture, and language but also the contemporary ideals of what it means to be Native American today.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Interim Innovation News Editor
Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Public Schools Native American Education Program