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Sugar House Journal

Indigenous schooling concerns take center stage at SLCSD superintendent meet and greet

Aug 30, 2021 16h54 ● By Lizzie Walie

By Lizzie Walje | [email protected]

On Aug. 13, the SLCSD Title VI Program hosted a meet and greet featuring the newly appointed superintendent Timothy Gadson. The event was held at the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City. With just over 30 people in attendance, the event slowly shifted into a round table, where indigenous educators, parents, children, district board members, and allies, all gathered to discuss some of the challenges with educating Native American students in the district.                                                                                          

Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal funding assistance. Public schools often get federal funding through certain initiatives and programs, Title VI being one of them. Part of the issue, as was reiterated by many people in attendance at the meeting, is that Native American families are not filling out the proper documentation to receive the funds and programming that they’re entitled to. A desire to not fill out basic paperwork might seem on the surface rather perplexing, but when looking at the optics of Native American relations with the government agencies in this country, it makes more sense. 

On the surface, the title itself appears to be a helpful initiative, however, many speakers at the event pointed toward the negative effects of modern-day discriminatory policies like redlining, that keep Native American children and parents from fully investing in education. Furthermore, the residual fallout from broken treaties, residential schools, and current reservation issues continue to expand the divide. Not to mention, many Native American parents still don’t fully trust the educational system, a side effect of residential schools where generational trauma was born out of ethnic cleansing. 

“My mother went to a residential school,” said a former parent now turned grandparent who wished to remain anonymous. “When she was there she was stripped of her cultural identity. Those experiences make it hard for us to trust the government. A lot of kids don’t.”

Gadson and two members of the board of education Bryce Williams and Nate Salazar were present to hear the concerns of parents and educators alike. “[I believe] there are common misconceptions about [indigenous] students, well, stereotypes,” said Suzanne S., a teacher at one of Salt Lake City School District’s middle schools. “I’ve had students before where I thought they just didn’t care about showing up to school, putting in the work. But then, I’d see them at local [Native American] events surrounded by loved ones, family, totally engaged. It then occurred to me, it’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that their needs aren’t being met in the classroom for whatever reason.”

Gadson spent a significant amount of the meeting actively listening and fielding concerns when necessary. He did acknowledge that “[This] has been an issue in every state I’ve been in.” Gadson has previously held school administrative positions in Washington State and Minnesota. 

“We struggle to get our parents to fill out forms. If we can get them [to do that] we can better understand what support their child needs,” he said. Gadson was adamant that the district wants to hear from its parents. However, the issue remains, how do we bridge the gap when distrust is rampant? Gadson believes it will take “stepping out as educators” to get the job done. 

“Growing up in the South,” Gadson said, “I was the only Black student in a predominantly white class. There were times I felt like an other. [The goal] is to figure out the why of the situation. Why they’re not showing up, why they’re not doing work. I am going to be asking the whys and ensuring my cabinet members do the same.” 

Gadson acknowledged it’s going to take time and accountability. Something that board members Williams and Salazar also acknowledged. “Last year was very difficult,” Salazar said to the group. “As a board we could have and should have done better. We need our adult problems to not take focus, and redirect that into what we can do for the kids.” 

How exactly will board members and educators create a more fluid exchange of information? “It’s going to take outreach,” Gadson said. “We’re not going to require teachers [to go out into the community]. Nor are we going to pay them more to do so. But we want to encourage them to, why? Because it’s the right thing to do.” 

Beyond the specified concerns of indigenous children that largely dominated the meeting, toward the end of the meeting Gadson did make some general comments regarding what he intends to do during his inaugural year for the district in general. 

“We want to aim for self-governance,” Gadson said. “While our schools will be able to get the help that they need from the district when they need it, the idea is to treat each school as if it were its own. True, we are one district. But every school has its own personality.” 

Gadson concluded by saying, “We are going to dig deep this year. Find out where our children are and meet them where they are.”