Native students, especially young women, are not going to school – and it’s not for the reasons you think. School administrators who are grappling with this enormous problem of absenteeism should understand two points about why Native girls are missing class. First – many of the students want to go to school. However, factors beyond their control are preventing many of them from doing so on a consistent basis.
In other words, absenteeism in the case of Native girls isn’t necessarily indicative of their disinterest, but rather, the number of obstacles preventing them from attending school on a consistent basis.
At Risk For Missing Out
Fifteen years ago the United States Department of Education identified four main risk factors conditioning children’s academic success: living in poverty, living in a single-parent family, having a mother who did not complete high school and having parents who have a primary language that is not English.
Native school-age children, both on and off reservations, typically have at least two of these risks. 27 percent of Native families live in poverty (more than double the general population’s rate of 13 percent living in poverty), and the second highest rate of single-parent homes among the country’s other races and ethnic groups. Over a quarter of families speak a Native language at home. Native students have the highest rate of absenteeism by the 8th grade, and the lowest high school graduation rate at 67 percent.
Still, risk factors are not sentences; American Indian children demonstrate the same motor and cognitive competencies at nine months as children from other racial/ethnic backgrounds. By two years of age there is a small gap, and by age four an observable discrepancy in a Native child’s mathematical (counting, shapes, patterns, operations) and literacy skills (letter recognition, phonetics, early reading). Native students start from the same academic playing field, and early intervention is key to keeping their skills on par with their peers.
So what’s keeping girls from getting to school?
Can’t Get a Ride
Lack of reliable transportation is a significant obstacle impeding a student’s ability to get to class on time, if at all. If the family does own a functioning vehicle, it is often shared among the household. The person or persons using the vehicle to commute to jobs are prioritized and if this schedule conflicts with the student’s transportation needs, the need for a paycheck wins. Girls are sometimes told to stay home and babysit younger siblings while the parent is at work.
Even if the family does own a vehicle with the intention of bringing their children to school, it might be old, malfunctioning and unreliable. The alternative is public transportation. But these schedules can also be erratic, and more importantly, often the bus, subway and light rail stops are still some ways from the house. If you can’t even get to the bus, how can you ride it to school?
Oh, and that’s assuming the community has a public transportation system. Students living in rural areas do not have this option at all.
Access to Learning Tools
Students are also skipping school because they cannot complete assignments. Instructional technology has evolved significantly, such that computers, tablets and even smartphones are now part of students’ learning process. But what happens when you don’t have one or more of these devices in your home? Only 78 percent of 8th grade American Indian students in public school have access to computers at home, the lowest rate of any racial/ethnic group.
And while schools and libraries offer computers, tablets and other learning devices, these tools are often shared among multiple persons with time limits, and this assumes the student can commute to the facility to use them.
Perhaps more important than learning technology, there is also a need for improved recruiting and retaining skilled educators. Schools with large Native student populations have a difficult time finding and keeping talented teachers due to lack of resources, remote locations and challenging working conditions.
Additionally, teachers of Native students need an increased training in integrating Native languages and cultures in the classroom. When students come from homes where the primary language is not English, parents and other community members are less able to assist students at home with their schoolwork.
Parental involvement is one of the predictors for a child’s academic success, and the cultural barrier precluding their direct participation is a considerable obstacle. If the adults in the house are not engaging with the student and the learning material as well, they are less likely to prioritize helping their students with reliable transportation to school; access to learning tools, devices and facilities; and with homework assistance and tutoring.
A Monthly Obstacle
One in three American Indian children live in poverty. For women and girls, sometimes this means that feminine hygiene products are prohibitively expensive. The average age for girls to begin menstruating is 12, but it is becoming more common for some to start before the age of 10. Tampons and pads are not covered by food stamps. Considering that a box of 36 tampons costs around $7, and a girl needs at least a box to get through one cycle, that’s over $80 a year for supplies. That is for just one person, so if there are multiple females in the home the cost doubles or triples.
And this does not include the cost of other supplies that might be essential for managing a menstrual cycle: pads, panty liners, OTC medication for cramps and new underwear or clothing to replace stained items.
Some girls are not making it to school every single month because they do not have the supplies to manage their period in a private and sanitary way, or they are unable to afford medicine to deal with cramping, headaches and body pains.
Health, Wellness, and Family Support
The issue of students missing school is also related to a stable home life.
Are they moving often, or in danger of being forced to leave their home? If not, is their home in a safe location, proximate to the school and has a space conducive to studying?
Is the family struggling to eat? When money is scarce, so is food. Lack of adequate nutrition makes it difficult for students to concentrate in class and vulnerable to illness, causing them to miss school.
Does the student feel safe in her home? Is she or any of her family members addicted to one or more substances?
Single-parent families where the mother is not a high school graduate are a double predictor for students struggling in school – and especially for their daughters. Native women have the highest birth rate for ages 15-24. The lack of sex education and reliable healthcare means young women are at risk for engaging in sexual activity, becoming pregnant and not being given a variety of options about how to proceed next. Then they watch the same thing happen again with their daughters.
The First Step
Encouragingly, recent reports show that the number of Native students going to college has doubled in the past 30 years, with tribes controlling more than 32 higher learning institutions in the country. Many students are choosing to major in business, followed by education.
Native girls are not going to school because they can’t cut it in the classroom (they can) or they don’t want to be there (they do). If we want to see young women graduate from high school and have the option of enrolling in college, we need to make it a priority to get girls to class from the youngest age.
Transportation can be solved with carpools, while lobbying school boards for bus services or subsidizing public transportation costs. Increased funding is needed to equip classrooms with enough learning tools and devices for students to use – and ideally take home to work with. Schools can connect with an established organization or start their own drives to collect and circulate feminine hygiene products to the students who cannot afford them. There are now several grassroots efforts to connect women and girls with the feminine hygiene products they need, including The Period Project and Tampon Tuesday.
Most importantly, schools need to have either in-house or a close partnership with family support services offering assistance with housing, food, substance abuse counseling and college and career training.
Let’s help our girls get to school – they are smart enough, talented enough and hardworking enough to succeed once there.