From left: Mike Ward, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Zoe Locklear, Dean of School of Education and Chancellor Allen C. Meadors
Three hundred educators and leaders, including State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Mike Ward, gathered at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke May 29-30 to discuss challenges facing American Indians students in Robeson and Hoke counties.
The conference, entitled "Rediscovering the Collective Strength of the Circle," discussed the federal No Child Left Behind Act and how it applies to American Indians and other minority students.
"The people that matter most are our most vulnerable of children," said Dr. Ward. "If white children dropped out at the same rate as Native American children, African American children and Latino children, we would declare a national emergency, and we would do something about it," said Dr. Ward.
"It matters to our economy that we solve this problem," he said. "It matters to communities, it matters to moms and dads."
The two-day conference covered topics sensitive to the region, including drop-out rates and standardized testing. It was sponsored by UNCP's First Americans' Teacher Education (FATE) committee, which is a three-year, $465,000 federally-funded program to recruit and counsel Native American teachers.
The conference was also a platform for American Indians to share their culture, said Dr. Brenda Dial Deese, FATE coordinator. A total of 42 seminars presented challenges facing minority students and strategies on dealing with them in the classroom.
FATE helps students by awarding scholarships and connects them with schools that have significant American Indian student populations. Dr. Deese estimated that 75 prospective American Indian teachers have been helped so far, and that interest in the program is gaining strength.
"The reason it is so important to have American Indian teachers is that children need positive role models," said Dr. Deese. "Our grany is renewable, and I believe we can double the number of American Indian teachers served."
For a number of years, there was a decline in the number teachers - including American Indian teachers - but that may be changing with the FATE program in place and overall teacher recruitment up 77 percent over the past two years at UNCP.
UNCP Chancellor Allen C. Meadors praised teacher recruitment efforts at UNCP's School of Education and echoed the sentiments that more minority teachers must be recruited and trained to deal with the specific problems facing the region.
"It is critical that we close the achievement gap and to make sure every child has at least a high school education," he said. "And, we can never back off on that."
Guest speaker Gongshu Zhang, a consultant for the State Department of Public Instruction, addressed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the push to raise state standards.
"Can we reach the NCLB standards? From the bottom of my heart, I say, it depends," he said.
Zhang said that to close the achievement gap, teaching methods would have to be changed, as well as the hiring of minority teachers and others with experience with special-needs students.
Minority students in Robeson and Hoke counties perform slightly higher than the median, Zhang said.
"This was O.K. for history, but not for the future," he said.
On day two of the conference, a panel of seven high school dropouts took the stage and told their stories.
"When my school merged with a bigger one, I wasn't fitting in right anymore," said Judy Jones, who dropped out at 15. "And there was nobody at home to tell me I couldn't drop out," she said.
Reasons for dropping out ranged from peer alienation to unsupportive home environments. Some of the dropouts said they had sibling-like relationships with parents that made dismissing pleas to return to school easier.
UNCP's role in the equation is to actively recruit more teachers who can relate to this environment and to train them to help close the achievement gap and build a future together, said Dr. Zoe Locklear, dean of the School of Education.
"By mentoring our student-teachers, we will be able to address the needs of the region more effectively, " Dr. Locklear said. "We want to focus, not just on closing the achievement gaps, but on building children's futures."