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Native Students Share National Stage at White House Conference

Native students, a significantly rural population, have been a focal point this week at the White House during its fourth annual Tribal Nations Conference.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke earlier this week to invited leaders of the 566 federally recognized tribes, and the White House released a report on the administration's efforts to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Duncan talked about how visiting reservations can be both rewarding and heart-wrenching.

"You know the shortcomings of the schools and social support networks in Indian country better than anyone," he told those gathered. "You know that American Indian children are more likely to be abused, have the highest rates of emotional and physical neglect, and that too many tragically take their own lives."

He highlighted some of the administration's initiatives to close the achievement gap for Native students, such as the creation of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, which has worked to tailor federal educational programs that meet the specific needs of Native youth.

He also cited the launch of State-Tribal Education Partnership earlier this year, which is supposed to give tribes greater opportunities to meaningfully participate in the education of their children.

Native student advocates have used this week to push for the reauthorization of legislation that funds Native-language immersion classes and schools in many rural communities.

Since 2006, more than 300 grants worth a total of $50 million have been awarded as part of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, which is up for renewal this year.

The Nation Indian Education Association fears the extinction of Native languages in the coming decades—74 are projected to disappear in the next 10 years—and the group says it's important to preserve them.

Some of the three-year grants in place are being used to deliver all instruction in students' Native language and to create a stock of children's books in their Native language.

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