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Inclusive education: Meet Bemidji schools’ new American Indian culture and curriculum specialist

Jared Blanche is the new American Indian culture and curriculum specialist for Bemidji Area Schools. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—Tucked into a corner of Bemidji Middle School in his new office, Jared Blanche has a mission.

Blanche is Bemidji Area Schools' new American Indian culture and curriculum specialist, and he wants to look at what schools in the district are teaching and make it more inclusive for American Indian students.

"If the students see themselves in what's being taught, they'll be able to retain it better, they'll be able to feel more welcome in the classroom," Blanche said. He's looking for ways to incorporate curriculum about American Indians across the board, rather than just in specific areas outlined by state standards or attached to broader and deeper lessons about European culture or history.

"Not just in these little blurbs," Blanche said. "Not just in a Thanksgiving Day-type thing."

Under his advice then, history teachers might place more weight on treaties between the U.S. government and tribal leaders, or English teachers could add more American Indian myths and legends to their lessons.

The Minnesota Department of Education's website indicates that 875 of the school district's approximately 5,200 students are American Indian—about 16 percent, and far-and-away the largest non-white student demographic. White students account for 71.5 percent of the student body, the department reports.

For now, Blanche said he's focusing on elementary grades. He hopes to curate schools' libraries to put more "American Indian-positive" stories in students' hands and avoid stereotyping.

He's also working on lessons plans for Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, and could edit the mythos of a man who's often credited with discovering the new world even as he encountered long-standing civilizations there.

"There's so many actual journals about what he (Columbus) really did and how he really acted towards people that he found. There's violence and other awful things," Blanche said. "We don't want to dwell on the negativity, of course, but at the same time you've got to make sure you present the real facts of the situation, not the romanticized explorer version of it."

Blanche grew up on the Red Cliff reservation in northern Wisconsin, where he said he saw several acquaintances put their education aside.

"They just dropped off because they didn't feel appreciated in school," Blanche, who was the lone American Indian education student in his graduating class at University of Wisconsin-Superior, remembered. "They didn't feel like they had the expectation of doing well in school because they're American Indian, because of whatever signal they put on themselves...And I've seen a lot of very, very bright friends and people in school that just didn't go on to do things because of either family problems or other issues."

Blanche's position at Bemidji Area Schools was created last spring as part of a larger series of staffing changes. Before then, the district's Local Indian Education Committee asked district leaders to develop a comprehensive plan to "address the unmet needs of American Indian students and related achievement gap."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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