FLAGSTAFF- Twenty-four interested administrators, teachers and staff of the Minnisinaakwaang Leadership Academy of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe visited local reservation communities beginning April 19. The group landed in Phoenix and headed north to visit the Hopi and Navajo reservations as well as the Grand Canyon.
On the 21st, the group traveled to the home of Dr. Mark Sorensen, who has worked with the Academy as a consultant. Sorensen is the director and founder of the STAR School, a charter school built on the principles of the "Four Rs"-Respect, Relationship, Responsibility and Reasoning. Add student leadership and Service To All Relations, the STAR School serves as a model of what the Ojibwe hope to achieve with the establishment of two charter schools on their reservation.
Winnie LaPrairie-the Indian education director for the Mille Lacs Band, and her husband, Mushkooub, a school founder and community leader-led a giveaway following a dinner of steak, Navajo tacos and other delicious food prepared by the STAR School parent organization.
Friendships were formed throughout the evening, and the network became stronger during a visit to the STAR School the following day.
"Our kids have been going to a public school-and we have had a lot of problems with institutional racism at the hands of the general population. We still have community racism. We decided we wanted to teach our kids ourselves," LaPrairie said.
"We said, 'We've given the public school system a chance, now let us teach our own children.'"
LaPrairie expressed her appreciation of the reception the group received from Hopi and Navajo community members.
"It was wonderful to talk to people," LaPrairie said. "We were welcomed into communities, and it was good to talk to grassroots people."
Mushkooub presented the school with several books including histories of the Ojibwe/Chippewa people and samples of Minnesota's state mineral, the Lake Superior agate.
Ricky White, director of the Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy, is a Canadian Native who also taught in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.
"I wanted to see the Minisinaakwaang School open because of the mediocre education our kids were getting on the reservation. We wanted to establish our own school, give more to our kids, give more of ourselves," White said.
Upon hearing about the Four Rs expected of all members of the STAR School community, Henry Flocker recognized a concept from his own culture.
"I was stimulated to think about what is the message of our school," Flocker said. "At our school, we want to see leadership actions, beliefs and values. We want ethical relationships. We need to build a foundation on this, we need to bust out of the traditional western educational philosophy. We need to teach from the heart, telling our students, 'we love you; we expect more of you.'"
Boyd Nelson, a member of STAR School's Indian Education Committee (IEC) reminded the Ojibwe visitors to remember to work with their parents-a valuable resource for any school, and IEC president Ralph Drake described the IEC and Learn and Serve project (which he co-directs) efforts to instill Navajo language in the students' educational day.
STAR school's connection with the Ojibwe began with the friendship between Sorensen and Dr. Rick St.Germaine, a former Tribal Chairman of the Lac Cout Oreilles Band of Ojibwe, and also a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire.
At St.Germaine's suggestion, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe contacted Sorensen to assist its efforts to establish its own charter schools on the Northern reservation.
"Dr. St.Germaine and I had previously established the Four Winds Native American Principal's Academy, in which we taught leadership skills to principals of tribal schools from around the country," Sorensen said.
St.Germaine said that the $4 million Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy will welcome 70 kindergarten through twelfth-grade students in September.
"These children have been sent to public school where they were a small minority," St.Germaine said. "We were seeing a high dropout rate, and we have a similar situation where mostly people over 50 speak their language, and most students do not."
The representatives from Mille Lac spent a great deal of time interacting with student leaders from the Learn and Serve leadership group who shared details of their work through the Elder Help Project and Reading Buddies who have spent time reading with kindergarten and first grade students at STAR.
Sorensen and the staff of the STAR School hope to continue sharing information with their new friends, and look forward to a reciprocal visit to Minnesota later in the summer.
"I am always happy to see the STAR School play a role in inspiring others who are involved in establishing charter schools in Indian Country," Sorensen said. "We believe that we have discovered and are using methods of teaching academics and character that are especially useful in Native communities and are eager to share what we have learned.
"I believe that the visit from the Ojibwe will remind students and staff members that we have friends in other tribes and Native communities, and that we can build on these new friendships," Sorensen said.