This program helped Native American students graduate. Its future is now uncertain.

Published 9/27/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 9/27/2023 4:37 p.m. EDT

A Native American student walks forward, holding two books, with two large floating hands pointing out the way. In the background are check marks and X marks, a star sticker, a sticker that says great job, a medicine wheel, a feather, and a beaded headband. But then the hands disappear, followed by the indigenous and academic symbols, and the student drops her books.

Sister Minnie liked to read to the younger kids. She went to William Paca Elementary every week to be with one of the quieter students just so the little one knew she had someone there for her.

There was also Mr. Charlie, who built a garden so the children could get in touch with their farming roots.

And there was Miss Ashley who juggled it all, from art classes to home visits.

All three once worked as part of a program that for decades provided support to Native American children who attended city schools. Under the partnership between the Baltimore American Indian Center and the public school system, federal funding was used to hire a liaison between Native families and the schools. At first the job of the Indian Education coordinator was to monitor attendance. It quickly became much more.

But this school year is the first in decades that no funding is dedicated to Native American students due to an error in the center’s application for a federal grant. People at the center also said that though there were some champions for the program among some school officials, the school system did not provide enough support to ensure the program would carry on.

The disappearance of the program came as a surprise to some parents who said they felt left in the dark and are still confused about the status of the center.

“If the program is still going on, we should know about it,” Joy Huggins said. “My Indigenous children should know about it, right? “

“And if the program isn’t going on ... what do we need to do to get it back?”

After World War II, Baltimore’s industrial core lured many Lumbee migrants to the city that had better-paying jobs than their home in North Carolina. In 1973, as the community grew into what it endearingly called “the reservation,” they established the city’s Indian Education Program to help Native American students work toward academic achievements many of their parents did not have.

As of 2022, public schools in 38 states across the nation had an Indian Education program. The program, which falls under the U.S. Department of Education, was established in 1972 to address the “unique needs” of Native students. For decades, the federal government used the education system to strip Native Americans of their culture, said Waquin Preston, a tribal state policy associate at the National Indian Education Association. He noted the history of boarding schools, where students endured rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse that led to at least 500 deaths, investigations have found. The U.S. Department of the Interior is still investigating the extent of mistreatment of Native students.

Nationwide, Native American students score lower in math and English than their white peers, and historically were 237% more likely to drop out of school. In Baltimore, they are behind all other races in high school English proficiency and their four-year graduation rate is lower than the average.

In her first year in the budding program in 1974, Jeanette Jones went from one school to the next identifying Native students and talking to their teachers. The heart of the program was at South Ellwood Avenue, a block away from Patterson Park, where the old Patterson High School used to be located.

Soon, the teachers were reaching out to her, Jones said.

“Your kid didn’t bring the homework,” they would tell her. And Jones would march to the classroom, and if she saw the kids were indeed not doing what they were supposed to, she would get them back on track.

“I would say, ‘Do your work,’” she told The Banner. “And they always respected me.”

On mornings before classes started, she checked on her kids, who began to tell other students Jones was their grandmother. If she noticed an absence, she called their families. If she didn’t get a response, she went to their homes. Sometimes it was a matter of a mother not waking up their child. Other times, the kids didn’t have clothes to go to school. Whatever it was, Jones and others made sure the students went to school the next day.

People who worked at the center and Baltimore City Public Schools told The Baltimore Banner that it was a change in leadership that led to the demise of the partnership.

Several people said Louise Fink, the former director of the district’s home and hospital program, which facilitated the grant, had been a champion for the program, willing to do whatever it took to keep it going. It was a different story with Courtney Pate, who took over Fink’s role last year, s

everal people said.

In the fall of 2022, Tiffany Locklear, who had been the program’s coordinator through city public schools for the previous four years, said Pate didn’t think the amount of funding — $23,000 in recent years — was worth applying for.

“As soon as she came in, she wanted the program out the door,” Locklear said.

A public schools spokesperson said they would consider applying for the grant next year.

Usually, the school system and center apply for the grant together. In February, Pate suggested that the Baltimore American Indian Center apply on its own. Pate’s reasoning was that the center could serve more students by dealing with the funds directly, according to a school system spokesperson, opening the opportunity to reach students in surrounding counties.

Tomalita Peterson, who was handling the grant for the center, said she was hesitant, but moved forward with the application. She learned that the center had filled out the wrong form and applied as a tribe, rather than a “community-based Indian organization.”

“I’m feeling really heartbroken the way they did us,” said Linda Cox, whose mother was one of the people who founded the center in the late 1960s.

The school system “didn’t care diddly-squat about us nor our children,” she added.

Ten years after the beginning of the program, as many as 480 children were registered in the public school system as members of state or federally recognized tribes — the largest native student population in the state at the time, according to an 1983 Baltimore News American article.

But since then, the Native student population has steadily dwindled as many families moved to Baltimore County. Between 2008 and 2016, there were 100 to 150 active students in the city’s program, many who were Lumbee, Cherokee, Mohawk and Blackfoot. Now, the center and the school’s district estimate around 70 students in the city identify as Native American.

It only takes 10 students for a school district to qualify for a federal grant with the Office of Indian Education. And these are the students, — the minority in their school system — who see some of the most critical benefits of the program, said Susan Faircloth, a researcher who has focused on Indigenous education. These programs bring students together, she said.

“So that they can see other students who look like them, who sound like them, who have similar cultural experiences, backgrounds, interests, histories,” she said, all while working with an educator who either is Native or who has a strong grounding in native cultures.

That does not relieve a school system from “the ethical responsibility” to go “above and beyond” the program to serve American Indian children, Faircloth said.

When Aniysha Barnes was a student at William Paca Elementary, she remembers going to the center what felt like almost every other day. The center was very much a mainstay in her childhood. She went there with her cousins and remembers Ashley Minner Jones — or Miss Ashley — watching over them. When Jeanette Jones retired around 2007, she passed the torch to her niece.

She remembers learning about Native American history and culture, which she says she would not have learned on her own. Miss Ashley, who she says was like a second mother, provided her a much needed sense of normalcy and allowed her to just be a kid.

“You don’t really have anybody that relates to you when you are Native American,” said Barnes, now a 20-year-old who wants to be a nurse.

“We’re not disappearing. There’s not very many of us, but we’re still here,” she added.

When Locklear, the former Indian Education coordinator, was a teenager, she quit school for two years. Minner Jones, who ran the Indian Education program at the time, kept reaching out, letting Locklear know she had her support if she decided to go back. She eventually did.

Then, two years ago, one of Locklear’s own students stopped going to school. Locklear thought of the impact Minner Jones had on her, and kept checking on the student as well.

The student graduated a month ago, she said.

More from The Banner