A Quick Word With: Courtney Tanenbaum
The Title III Native American and Alaska Native Children in School (NAM) Program was designed to reduce the English language proficiency gap between Native American and Alaska Native Children who are identified as English learners (ELs) and their peers, while honoring their local culture and language. AIR researchers, including Courtney Tanenbaum, conducted a qualitative study of this U.S. Department of Education competitive grant program, examined its activities, perceived benefits, challenges, and lessons learned.
Q: What was unique about this project?
Tanenbaum: The main goal of the program is to promote the overall academic success of Native American and Alaska Native EL children by developing their English language proficiency. Another goal is honoring local Native languages and cultures: the program also provides support for Native language and Native culture instruction. The grant was awarded to different types of organizations, including public schools and public school systems, tribal colleges, tribal education agencies, and Bureau of Indian Education schools. There was also a wide range of grade levels served and tribal communities served; and grantees had a lot of flexibility in designing and implementing grant activities. The Department enlisted AIR to better understand how grant funds are being used in these different contexts, so we conducted case studies of 19 of the 25 FY 2011 and FY 2013 grantee sites.
Many of the sites in the study are in rural areas, and seven are in Alaska. The experiences of education leaders and schools serving Native communities are not often given a spotlight or well understood in the broader education policy and research communities, so this study allowed us to speak with people whose voices sometimes go unheard in the policy sphere, even though they have very distinct and important educational stories to share.
Our study did not aim to measure or evaluate student outcomes. Rather, the primary purpose was to examine how these grants were implemented and inform future government planning for these grants, including what kinds of supports are provided.
Q: What commonalities, if any, did you find among the sites you visited?
Tanenbaum: Across the board, these communities share a real commitment to serving their students. They’re truly dedicated to improving students’ English language proficiency while honoring their culture and heritage. Many of these students are growing up in families where they’re a little disconnected from their local language or culture because it has been somewhat diffused over time. Part of the grantees’ charge is to provide native language cultural supports, which could come in the form of Native language instruction, cultural learning events, and/or family and community engagement.
By providing more culturally relevant learning experiences to students and their families and incorporating the teaching of Native languages and cultures into the program, students and their families can develop a stronger sense of belonging and connectedness to their schools. The two goals of the program—the English language learning and Native language pieces—were very interconnected and mutually reinforcing.
Q: What common challenges did the grantees face?
Tanenbaum: One big challenge was limited staff capacity. Generally, it can be difficult in rural communities to find highly qualified staff for English learners, but the qualifications for this project were even more specific. There were not that many individuals who were both fluent in the local languages as well as trained educators. Many grantees reported that it was difficult to find teachers who both reflected the diversity of the students and were well-qualified to teach the Native language and culture, or to meet the linguistic needs of Native American and Alaska Native students who are ELs. Partnerships were a huge asset to this program: Communities and schools would partner with institutions of higher education or linguists to help fill in some of these knowledge gaps