Brainerd School Board commits to bettering American Indian learning environment

A series of recommendations from the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee seek to improve the educational experience for Native American students.

Niizhoogaabawiik - Indigenous student liaison
Niizhoogaabawiik, who serves at the indigenous student liaison at Brainerd Public Schools, talks to School Board members Monday, May 8, 2023, about recommendations from the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — Increased collaboration, cultural professional development opportunities and more inclusive hiring processes are among the ways Brainerd Public Schools officials plan to elevate the learning experience for their Native American students.

School Board members approved a list of recommendations Monday, May 8, resulting from March’s vote of nonconcurrence from the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee.

This year marks the fifth year in a row the district received this sort of feedback from the committee, which is a requirement under state statute to meet the needs of Native American students. The vote of concurrence means the district still has work to do to meet those unique needs.

Committee members gave the district four recommendations moving forward, and School Board members approved a formal response and commitment to those recommendations Monday.

“In putting together our response to the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee members’ vote of nonconcurrence in March, we wanted to reciprocate with the gratitude and acknowledge the collaboration that that group brought forward,” board member Sarah Speer said. “And we started our recommendations with a list of thank yous and just acknowledging the great work they’ve done in bringing programming into the schools and assisting with so many of the things that we want to make happen for those students.”


American Indian students make up 3.5% of the district’s student population, which is the highest minority, along with those who identify as two or more races.

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To represent the collaborative spirit between the committee and the district, Speer noted the gift of a tree for the two groups to plant together in the school forest.

And the board added one extra recommendation, desiring more collaboration with the committee in the future.

“We really felt like this process doesn’t — that how it’s set up by the state — doesn’t necessarily allow for collaboration, and so we want to suggest a recommendation for next year that the groups that get to contribute to this process don’t do it in separate rooms, that we do it together and knowing that we have the same goals and we want to accomplish the same things for these students,” Speer said.

Dream Catcher Project

First, the district will apply for and participate in the Dream Catcher Project next school year in order to reduce special education disproportionality of Native American students and provide special education staff with deeper cultural knowledge of issues impacting special education.

The Dream Catcher Project is a program through the Minnesota Department of Education that trains American Indian staff to work with special educators and allow the schools to make better evaluations and include cultural perspectives in decisions about students.

Sometimes cultural issues can be misinterpreted as learning struggles, board member Michelle Brekken noted as she explained the recommendations.

“So we need to train our special education teachers as they’re looking at these students and determining what would be best in terms of an intervention,” Brekken said. “... Because there’s a disproportionate amount of students that are qualifying for special ed when really it’s a cultural difference, not a learning issue.”


Professional development

Second, the district is committed to further education and professional learning on culturally relevant pedagogy and American Indian cultural practices, which are vital to creating a supportive, welcoming learning environment for staff and students.

The district is beginning to work on an administrative procedure for smudging, with involvement from the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee and would like to accompany it with education for both staff and students.

The district also plans to provide professional development opportunities on indigenous cultural practices next January for all staff and will continue to partner with indigenous presenters and trainers to build professional learning authentically into the curriculum.

Brainerd School Board - May 8, 2023
Brainerd School Board members discuss matters during their meeting Monday, May 8, 2023, at Forestview Middle School in Baxter.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Smudging involves burning herbs and resins before important events and can include tobacco as well. The inclusion of tobacco, which is typically banned on school property, in these ceremonies has been a subject of discussion in recent years. While he doesn’t have an issue with smudging himself, School Board member DJ Dondelinger asked if it’s necessary to allow it indoors, as there have been complaints, and whether the practice would be better suited outdoors.

“I don’t know if it’s a big deal, but it seems a little odd to me that we’re burning tobacco and sage and things in the school,” Dondelinger said. “People are upset about it, and I don’t think it’s a big loss to somehow keep everybody happy. … I don’t think it’s an overreach. So is there any way that we can accommodate that without having to do it in the classroom?”

Speer said that’s a conversation that has yet to be had, as the recommendation states the district will discuss that policy but has not done so yet.

The recommendations, Board Chair Kevin Boyles added, are more of a framework for the work to be done and does not include specific details yet.

“Then why are we voting on it?” Dondelinger asked. “What is there to vote on?”


The vote is an acknowledgment of the committee’s vote of non-concurrence, Speer said, and a commitment to working on the recommendations brought forward.

Hiring input

Third, the district will invite the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee chair to provide input on the hiring of any positions that are paid for through American Indian state or federal funds, though the district itself will have the final say in any hirings. The recommendation comes with the acknowledgment that last year’s hiring of an indigenous student liaison did not feel fully representative for committee members.

Board member Randy Heidmann asked if input from a parent group like that is a common practice when hiring for other positions in the district or just this one.

The board then heard from Niizhoogaabawiik, who serves as the indigenous student liaison, and said the input is requested only for positions that are paid for by indigenous education funding instead of from the district’s general fund.

Niizhoogaabawiik, who goes by Niizhoo for short, described her role as a go-between, someone who bridges the gap between staff and Native American students and who helps those students to acclimate to the western education system.

Cultural classes

Fourth, the district will welcome the creation of Indigenous language and cultural classes and explore any post-secondary enrollment option opportunities with area tribal colleges.

The scope of those courses has not yet been determined, but the district’s teaching and learning department and advisory committee will work with the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee to determine the next steps.

The resolution

Before voting Monday on the resolution, which acknowledged the committee’s vote of non-concurrence and committed to the recommendations, Heidmann asked if the resolution was culturally responsive or educational in nature.


“Is it going to improve the proficiencies of Indigenous students?” he asked, noting he was not against the resolution but is naturally inclined to ask a lot of questions.

Niizhoo said the recommendations will improve the educational experience for Native students.

“We have seen that when students feel like they belong, students know their identity and know who they are and where they come from, and they have that increase in self-esteem … we see their education levels rise. We see their dependency on other programs decrease because they are becoming more resilient,” Niizhoo said. “It is also an education-based program for our students. It is relevant that they learn a lot of these things. … They’re learning new ways to be wonderful, brilliant, creative, amazing people. And I think anything that is able to do that in our community is going to boost our community as a whole.”

Board members unanimously approved the resolution, and Niizhoo thanked them for their commitment to this work.

“On behalf of the AIPAC committee, we do see you and we do appreciate you, and we are very thankful that it feels like we’re making progress,” she said.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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