“As currently configured, education reform’s roots may be shallow, because it has been propelled too frequently not from the bottom but from the top, often leaving parents and community members with the feeling… that education reform has been done not with them, but to them… no such movement can succeed without the support and engagement of its intended beneficiaries.” – Dr. Michael L. Lomax, President & CEO, United Negro College Fund 

When Dana Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota) became principal of Todd County Middle School on the Rosebud Reservation, she had her work cut out for her. The school culture was toxic, making it next to impossible for meaningful learning to happen. As Dana told me, Chris [her assistant principal] and I were getting upwards of 30 behavioral referrals each per day! There was no instructional leadership going on; it was basically triage.”  

The next year, her team converted an in-school suspension lab into the Recovery Room, a restorative space that would eventually be staffed full-time with counselors trained in mindfulness and de-escalation strategies. Instead of waiting for a meltdown, students could self-identify or be referred to the Recovery Room for reflection, meditation, counseling, coloring, and other restorative mental breaks.  

Classroom teachers were retrained as well, learning classroom strategies to build stronger adult-student relationships and minimize lost instructional time. The school overhauled its curricula to ensure that more Indigenous voices were heard, Lakota vocabulary was introduced in a variety of subject areas, and students received targeted instruction to close math gaps rather than being socially promoted. 

The results are impressive: In the first two years, suspensions decreased 62% and the number of students with multiple suspensions was cut in half. The Recovery Room has grown in popularity, with staff inquiring about strategies that they can use for their own mental health. On the Measures of Academic Progress assessment, students routinely hit their yearly growth goals by mid-year, putting more students on a path to closing opportunity gaps and catching up to their peers across the nation.  

As someone who has spent years working with schools on South Dakota’s reservations, I believe that this kind of intentional, culturally responsive educational leadership is what we need to disrupt the inequities baked into the Indian education system.   

The painful history of education on tribal lands is defined by the forceful separation of Indigenous children from their history, communities, and culture. Inspired by the “kill the Indian, save the man” philosophy that guided the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the Indian education system was designed to erase Indigenous values and ways of life, the impacts of which we still feel today: low expectations for student achievement, curricula that is neither grade-level appropriate nor affirming of Indigenous identities, teachers and school leaders who are ill-prepared to meet students’ unique learning needs, and education decisions made unilaterally by leaders who do not share the values of Indigenous communities. Unsurprisingly, this system has led to abysmal results; Indigenous students struggle with some of the worst academic outcomes of any demographic group. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. To dismantle this inequity, we must be at least as intentional in our approach—if not more—as those who designed the current system. We need to make sure Indigenous educators—essential catalysts for transformation—have the support and tools they need to bring about change.  

That’s why I founded the Liber Institute. 

The Liber Institute will build the leadership capacity of students, families, and educators to redesign the cultural and instructional practices of schools and the communities that surround them. Our work is predicated on recognizing the values, knowledge, and culture of a community as strengths, and positioning school leaders, teachers, students, and families as the architects of transformation.  

The Institute organizes its work in three interwoven strands: a transformational leadership academy for school leaders rooted in the wisdom and experience of the NYC Leadership Academy; culturally responsive teaching fellowship for teachers; and a design lab focused on incubating local approaches to building more equitable schools and institutions. I would like to use the rest of this blog to introduce our principal work. 

I am excited by and grateful for the support we’re receiving from the NYC Leadership Academy as we launch an academy for school leaders as part of the Liber Institute.    

Starting with a handful of principals, we will develop school leaders who hold themselves and their teams accountable for raising adult expectations of students and changing the narrative about Indigenous youth. These leaders look back on over a century and a half of inadequate learning outcomes not as a reflection of our kids’ potential, but as a reason to change what we believe about our students and how we act in response. Principals will hone three essential skills: 

  • Transformational leadership: Great school leaders need to know how to give helpful feedback and help teachers improve their instruction. They need to know how to push for important changes even when there is pressure to reinforce the status quo. We know what it looks like when “outside experts” direct education for Indigenous students; it is time that Indigenous voices lead the way.  
  • Developing a sacred affinity space. Native students seldom see themselves in their curriculum. Thanks to the vestiges of the boarding school model, they are losing touch with their culture, their language, and their values. Research has shown, however, that when students see themselves reflected in curricula and in the identities of their teachers, they are more engaged in their learning and, in turn, student achievement rises. Reimagining school as a sacred space for Indigenous people is a critical step in healing 160 years of failed Indian education policy.  
  • Organizing. Inequities are about power—who has it and who doesn’t. History tells us that when people organize around a shared vision, real change can happen. Part of transforming a school is about organizing teachers, parents, and community members around a shared vision, and inspiring people to mobilize to enact that vision. Organizing is critical for changing the way schools in Indigenous communities do business.  

If we have any hope of having a lasting impact, we cannot repeat the mistake of prioritizing the perspectives of outside “experts” over the knowledge and wisdom of local communities.  

For far too long, Indigenous people have had education policy imposed upon them rather than created by them. The Liber Institute will develop the leadership capacity of Indigenous leaders who will change that once and for all.