In this Equity in Focus post, we feature a Q&A with Niki Sandoval, Senior Strategic Development Manager at WestEd. Dr. Sandoval has spent her career addressing inequity in education, and in this Q&A she highlights practices that can contribute to equitable outcomes for Indigenous students.

Tell us about yourself and your role at WestEd.

I work closely with tribal, state, federal, and local leaders to align their policies, strategies, and accountability practices in order to achieve more equitable outcomes for youth and adults. I am a member of WestEd’s Strategic Resource Planning and Implementation team, which offers support through capacity building, facilitation of professional learning networks, policy implementation strategies, and research on the effective use of resources. I design and facilitate strategic resource planning, organizational reviews, communities of practice, and professional learning.

Your work as education director for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians helped improve the graduation rates of tribal students in that community significantly. In what ways did you support the students?

I served as education director for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians from 2009 to 2020. By working strategically in partnership with tribal, school, health, and family leaders and educators over a 10-year period, our tribal students consistently attained 96 to 100 percent high school graduation rates and 76 to 84 percent college enrollment rates, and our college graduation rates grew exponentially. Tribal students in our community steadily experienced fewer out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. Students were also actively participating in culture and language activities throughout the year, which strengthened their identities and foundations. This success was a result of a systemic, holistic, and integrated approach to meeting individual student needs and the needs of their families.

What kind of practices contribute to equitable outcomes for Indigenous students?

With tribal family and community members, taking an honest look at Native American student outcome data. Academic achievement, attendance, graduation, and disciplinary referral data tells an important part of the story about how Native students are experiencing school. For example, in 2019, 7.2 percent of American Indian students in California were suspended at least once compared with 2.9 percent of their White peers. Native American students experience persistent disparities in academic outcomes compared with other student groups. One example is evidenced by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scale scores for 4th grade American Indian students, which illustrate a pervasive gap from 1994 through 2017. High school graduation rates for American Indian students, at 74 percent, remain the lowest of any other ethnic group in the United States.

These facts are a source of anger, frustration, and deep sadness for Native students, families, and community members. Reviewing student outcomes with tribal, family, and school leaders helps us interpret the data within a fuller context, identify the root causes, and problem-solve together.

Listening to the perspective of Native American students, families, and communities on a consistent, year-round basis. Creating opportunities to listen and engage meaningfully with Native community members on an ongoing basis help us improve our practice as educators. This effort requires allocating the resources of time, personnel, and facilities to convene gatherings and offer learning opportunities that are centered on the well-being and academic growth of Native students. Hundreds of tribes are represented in the student populations of each state, with each tribe featuring distinct and complex cultural, economic, educational, historical, linguistic, political, and spiritual foundations. This rich diversity presents opportunities for welcoming and including tribally held cultural and educational resources that can benefit academic and social–emotional outcomes for Native American students.

Conducting resource allocation reviews and strategic planning. A resource allocation review is a first step in determining which investments have made a visible impact in the areas of education and wellness. Conducting such a review provides an opportunity to find patterns of behavior that have led to our desired outcomes. With strategic resource planning and community engagement, we strengthen and deepen the impact of existing investments. A facilitated process also creates space for us to think about investments of time and money that no longer serve students, staff, and families. Asking questions such as “Do we continue a program or service because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or because it is making our outcomes measurably better over time?” is a good start. Divestments are difficult but essential considerations for leaders and community members. External facilitators may help navigate this challenging work so that leaders can participate fully in the deliberations. This is work I absolutely love to do.

Watch our archived webinar, A Framework for Working Respectfully with Indigenous Communities Around Data and Evidence.

For another interesting interview with Dr. Sandoval about her work and perspectives, check out this article from the Santa Ynez Valley Star.