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Smith: Teaching universal human values

Dane Smith

Dane Smith

One of the sillier accusations tossed at our public schools in recent years is that they fail to teach “values” or provide moral instruction.

I spend enough time in the halls and classrooms of Minnesota public schools to know that this is mostly nonsense, and that timeless virtues of respect for others, honesty, and perseverance are inculcated in some way, most days, to most students.

But I’ve never seen a “values” theme stand out quite as much as it does at American Indian Magnet School, a bustling pre-K-8 school in the Mounds Park neighborhood of St. Paul’s East Side. I spent a day there this month as part of the St. Paul Public Schools “School Leader for a Day” program, auditing classroom and individual instruction, sitting in on teacher and staff conferences, and listening to students themselves.

Throughout the school, one sees large circles in the classic American Indian motif, with value-laden messages. One such circle is labeled “Strengthening the Circle of Learners” and is divided into four quadrants: “Building Relationships, Growing Minds, Honoring Traditions and Living Values.” Around that circle are these character traits and values: “love, generosity, truth, resiliency, humility, patience, compassion, wisdom, bravery, respect, honesty, courage.” These are universal human values, and kids from every culture can connect on that common ground.

The school has won national recognition for its Book of the Month Club tradition, which is tied specifically to values instruction. The Book of the Month for April, for instance, is “How Medicine Came to the People,” based on an ancient Cherokee tale, and teachers and staff help students learn the moral of the story, which is compassion and respect.

Few elementary schools in the state are likely to have as strong an emphasis on basic Minnesota history and the values of its original people, the Ojibwe of our northern and eastern woodlands and the Lakota of the southern and western prairies. But there again, the emphasis is not so much on dates and battles as on values. A document titled “The Lakota Virtues and Ojibwe Teachings” serves to interweave educational goals and curriculum in the school’s strategic vision.

The principal of American Indian Magnet School (AIMS) is Steve Couture, one of the most experienced Native American education leaders in Minnesota and a member of the Fond du Lac band of the Ojibwe tribe. Couture, who grew up in Duluth, was for many years a principal and administrator for Minneapolis Public Schools, and was lured out of retirement (after about two days, he jokes) to come across the river and lead AIMS through some challenging times. His gentle leadership style tends toward understatement and benevolent firmness, and the students show him a warm respect, calling him “Dr. Couture,” in deference to his Ph.D.

In a first-person essay published in the Star Tribune recently, Couture describes his school — where about one-fourth of some 750 students are American Indian, about one-fifth are white, and the great majority are low-income — this way: “We’re very diverse, but our whole mission is centered around American Indian language and culture. It’s been really gratifying for me to watch some of our Hmong kids, Latino kids… We do drumming and dance on Friday afternoons and everybody participates… It just makes your heart feel good.”

The tragic story of how our governments used the public education system to intentionally destroy Native American culture — something that our Scandinavian and Irish and Italian immigrants did not experience — is being reversed at Indian Magnet. Now other cultures are learning about history, music, sociology, and environmental science from the perspective of Minnesota’s original settlers and its earliest people. One could argue that a real understanding of Minnesota’s history and culture is impossible without a base of knowledge about our first people.

All well and good, but student performance on standardized tests and proficiency in reading and math trumps most other concerns these days. And like most schools with kids from mostly low-income households, scores at American Indian Magnet remain stubbornly low.

That concern is a top priority for Couture and his team, and I spent an hour with teacher Kathleen Westapher as she tutored one African-American boy in reading, through a “Reading Recovery” method that stresses phonemic awareness. He was coming along quite well.

Performance on reading, in particular, is improving significantly. Couture shows off a chart showing a steep upward trend on reading comprehension over the last two years in almost every grade. As Couture said in his first-person account, “From an achievement standpoint, we look back at our MCA [Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment exam] scores last year and we got nice numbers on our growth… This year we’re trying to push a little bit harder.”

The effort is beginning to attract notice. In a recent Star Tribune article that analyzed similarities and differences between the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts, the American Indian Magnet School was highlighted in text and photos as an example where “student engagement in language and culture courses appears to have helped raise performance.”

But as always, money is tight. Individualized attention like that provided by Westapher is expensive, and this school, like most in our public systems, faces constant pressure to cut further and economize. One of the school’s most pressing needs — because of enrollment growth through a merger with another school and the need for new support services and early childhood programming — is for more physical space.

All that aside, the progress being made by Couture and his team underscore a larger truth in St. Paul and Minnesota: Our often-maligned public schools and teachers are not just coping, but in many places thriving, with extraordinary challenges. Racial gaps are beginning to narrow. And with a smaller share of our total state resources than they had 20 years ago, with a far costlier and poorer student body, test scores in St. Paul and statewide are improving overall, for kids of all races.

And make no mistake, our public school kids are learning values too, every day.

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