Michigan Education Association

Alternative school’s curriculum infused with Native American culture

Staff given flexibility to better meet individual student needs.

In some ways, Christine Sanborn is a typical high school senior.

She likes to hang out with a few friends, and is counting down the days until graduation. The worst thing about school, she says with a laugh, is the cafeteria food.

Yet, Sanborn isn’t your average student in an average high school.

She’s one of about 100 students enrolled in Bimaadiziwin Alternative School in Grand Rapids, a program designed for at-risk students that has a special focus on providing a curriculum infused with Native American culture. Staff at the school work hard to understand students, believing that the experiences they bring with them play a significant role in their learning.

“We have to dig into their roots,” says teacher Ron Yob, who teaches culture classes that cover everything from Native foods, artwork, values, language and customs. Yob, who is chairman of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians in Grand Rapids, pushes students to explore history from a Native American point of view.

Some Bimaadiziwin students are Native American, but not all are. Some couldn’t cut it in the traditional high school setting because of academic challenges or poor attendance. Some are teen parents, or were abandoned by their own parents. Some students have spent time in the criminal justice system—or have parents serving time.

“Growing up is not easy,” says principal Charles Moore, who came out of retirement last year to work at the school. “You’ve got to believe in these students long enough so they can believe in themselves.”

One of the best things about Bimaadiziwin school is the flexibility that staff have to meet individual student needs. Staff feel empowered to make the educational program work for students, resisting the urge to force students to conform to a traditional school setting.

“They’re used to being in a situation with tension,” Yob says. “In their previous schools, they were trying to be defiant, trying to keep up with expectations, and they got so lost. It just took away from what they were trying to do.”

Teacher Sue Maturkanich says students feel a sense of belonging because respect is modeled—and extended to the students.

“I love my job,” Maturkanich said. “There’s so much that can be done. If they’re willing, the sky’s the limit.”

Added Yob: “Working here, you’re taking something that everybody else gave up on and you’re making February 10, 2009

Maturkanich is not Native American, but she grew up in a poor household and didn’t speak English when she entered school. She believes her own experiences help her understand some of the challenges faced by her students.

In her classes, she promotes character education by incorporating seven principles used by many Anishinaabe people as a guide to living. The teachings are known as the Seven Grandfathers, representing wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth.

This spring, nearly 20 Bimaadiziwin students are expected to earn diplomas, including Sanborn, who transferred to the school about three years ago.

“I’m thinking about taking a couple of community college classes and maybe going into real estate," she said.



Updated: February 10, 2009 4:45 PM