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Teach for America Turns Focus to Native Achievement

Teach for America has tapped a longtime teacher and administrator and a member of the new National Advisory Council on Indian Education to lead its fledgling Native Achievement Initiative.

Robert Cook of South Dakota will oversee efforts to increase Teach for America's presence and impact in school districts serving Native students.

Rural schools that serve high numbers of Native American students and schools on American Indian reservations rank among those most challenged by concentrated poverty and low achievement, according to Why Rural Matters 2009, a report on rural school districts by the non-profit research and advocacy group the Rural School and Community Trust.

Those schools also face chronic shortages of teaching and leadership talent.

Teach for America launched the Native Achievement Institute in 2009 to focus on those issues. Specifically, Cook will develop strategies to recruit teachers to hard-to-staff schools and grow the numbers of Teach for America alumni with the ability to lead long-term reforms in those schools.

Cook has served for 20 years as a teacher and administrator in American Indian education, most recently as principal of Pine Ridge High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In May, President Barack Obama tapped him for the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, which advises Education Secretary Arne Duncan on measures to strengthen education for Native children and adults. (Here's a list of all Council members.)

Cook has been named teacher of the year in Little Wound and Lower Brule, S.D.; state Milken National Educator in 2005; Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation American Indian 2006 Teacher of the Year; and the National Indian Education Association 2006 Teacher of the Year. Black Hills State University also named him one of its 125 most-accomplished alumni. He's an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe (Oglala Lakota).

According to Why Rural Matters 2009, states with the largest percentages of rural minority students include Alaska, which has a rural population comprised predominantly of indigenous people, and New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma, which have significant American Indian populations.

Those states show up, along with others, at the top of other key measurements in that report. Nine of the 13 states ranking near the top in the percentages of rural students in concentrated poverty serve large populations of American Indian/Alaska Native students. They include Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

Alaska, New Mexico, and Arizona also rank at the top of the list of states where fewer than six in 10 rural students graduate from high school.

Teach for America is a non-profit teacher corps of high-achieving recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. According to Teach for America, more than 8,200 corps members will be in 39 regions across the country. The corps has a growing presence in a number of rural regions where high numbers of small, rural schools serve high-poverty communities and post low achievement. The latest numbers list 358 teachers in the Mississippi Delta, 168 in eastern North Carolina, and 196 in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Rural Education blog plans a Q&A with Robert Cook about the challenges he sees in Native students and his plans. Stay tuned.

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