Each month, for an hour, state-level American Indian Education leaders gather within a virtual, cross-state community of practice to share and receive insight and inspiration into what’s working to support Native students.

The job of an American Indian Education director in a state education agency (SEA), particularly one situated in the expansive Southwest, can be as difficult as performing a tightrope balancing act without a balancing pole.

On one hand, the role requires serving many different Native Nations across spaces with unique cultures and histories, complicated by differing educational systems and annual political fluctuations in priorities and needs.

On the other hand, the job typically sits in a department … of one.

“When you are looking at states in the West that serve thousands of students from hundreds of tribes,” says Dr. Niki Sandoval (Santa Ynez Band of Chumash), Director of the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center at WestEd, “that is a large responsibility for a single individual, or what is otherwise a very small team … [and] can be isolating.”

The opportunity to connect, exchange and reciprocate with peers through a high-leverage learning network that supports practice, therefore, can be a lifeline.

In 2020, the Region 13 Comprehensive Center convened the first “American Indian Education Community of Practice” to bring SEA American Indian Education leaders, resources, and wise practices together to transform outcomes for American Indian and Alaska Native students.

The community has since grown to serve some 13 American Indian and Alaska Native education directors working for SEAs supported by the Region 13 and Region 15 Comprehensive Centers as well as REL West, REL Northwest, and the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center.

Together, these entities represent a large portion of Indian Country, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Sandoval leads and facilitates the Community of Practice. She describes the theory of action: “Relationships are human resources that we can access in really powerful ways to do our work better, to bring people together who have the same vision of an asset-based orientation to benefit Native students.”

For example, one month, members of the circle connected with math educators in tribal colleges in Montana and Michigan to discuss Carnegie Math Pathways work that has contributed to improved outcomes for students in dual enrollment and math and to higher graduation rates.

“[W]hen you hear from people in the field who are doing it, it lifts everyone up,” said Sandoval. “Approaches that are shifting things is when participants get an energy infusion—a vitamin shot.”

At another convening, participants learned how Minnesota’s SEA partnered with the state’s Tribal Nations Education Committee and American Indian student advocates to shift to a state definition for American Indian: any student from a North American tribe, regardless of other racial/ethnic background. This results in more accurate American Indian student representation and more schools with accurate counts for reporting and accountability purposes.

“Our colleagues are facing systemic challenges in their work. When a peer at another state agency shows you how they creatively addressed a particular challenge,” said Sandoval, “it’s revolutionary.”

“We were able to lean in and leverage each other’s expertise and knowledge in very specific areas that were relevant to the students we were serving. Everybody’s context is different, but what binds us is our students. It allowed us to have rich conversations that helped us make immediate decisions and had immediate implications on the work that we were doing.”

Five Promising Practices for Enabling Change 

Sandoval identifies five community constructs as key to enabling change:

  • Focus on priority issues articulated by Native Nations. Content is centered on what participants identify as a need or something they want to learn. “We strive to listen deeply and respond accordingly,” she reports.
  • Organize as a freethinking learning opportunity. “We are not giving our colleagues another job to do. We are here to support them.”
  • Balance learning opportunities with time for peers to connect. Evidence-based content is presented each month by scholars, researchers, practitioners, or participants themselves, followed by time for members to circle up and have frank conversations about approaches that can transform outcomes for students.
  • Invite participants to share what is working well. Members share opportunities such as implementation highlights and successes of design in large groups or small groups or via pair-share discussions.
  • Consistently convene. The community comes together on the last Wednesday of every month, and participants receive the schedule of topics in advance so that they can plan.

“Niki provided us with information that was relevant and critical to what we were doing,” said Melissa Castillo, a senior advisor to the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education who first joined the community in her previous role as an SEA leader. “But more importantly, she asked very critically reflective-type questions which really forced us to think about our context, what our purpose was and what we were hoping to … learn more about. She also was great at identifying common areas of need.”

“We were able to lean in and leverage each other’s expertise and knowledge in very specific areas that were relevant to the students we were serving. Everybody’s context is different, but what binds us is our students. It allowed us to have rich conversations that helped us make immediate decisions and had immediate implications on the work that we were doing.”

New Resources for Supporting Better Outcomes

The circle has also factored into the development of key Native resources that WestEd has developed for the field, including the following:

“There is a lot to learn from people who are on the ground doing the work … and from experts who have been studying this area for a long time,” said Castillo. “[W]hen you find others working on the same types of issues with the same wonderful populations, you really walk away with a lot, so the investment of time feels very minimal and very, very worthwhile.”

These and other learnings from the popular “Community of Practice” model will be presented at “Working Together to Advance Equity for Native Students,” an in-person workshop to be held on Friday, October 20, at 11 a.m. MT at the 54th Annual National Indian Education Association Convention and Trade Show in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The workshop will be cofacilitated by Sandoval, April Chavez (Diné Nation and Kewa Pueblo) of the Region 13 Comprehensive Center, and Dr. Rose Owens-West of WestEd. For more information on the convention, visit https://www.niea.org/2023-niea-convention.

The Regions 13 and 15 Comprehensive Centers work with SEAs and their regional and local constituents in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and the Bureau of Indian Education to improve outcomes for all children and better serve communities through capacity-building technical assistance, content expertise, and other services.

The contents of this blog post were developed under a grant from the Department of Education. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.