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Marysville-Pilchuck High School student Elyssa Zackuse, right, talks with Native advocate Ricky Belmonth on March 13.

 

Native liaisons and tribal advocates in Marysville schools help to provide a place for Native students to be seen, heard and supported.

“Unfortunately our kids can get lost in a big system, and if you’re disadvantaged or historically underserved then you can feel even more invisible,” said Deborah Parker, director of equity, diversity and indigenous education at the school district.

“A lot of our students feel like no one cares,” she said.

Parker herself attended the school district and found them supportive and helpful.

“All my schools had liaisons, and those offices were the safest place for myself and other Native Americans, and others who are our friends,” she said.

Today’s students report similar benefits from the current program.

“They help us a lot, especially with the Native kids. We have lots of opportunities to come in and get help with work and credits,” said Marysville-Pilchuck High School student Shoshone Hollen.

“They’re awesome and they help with a lot of things, and they keep you in check,” said M-PHS student Elyssa Zackuse.

The Native liaison program is part of the Marysville School District.

“Our program comes out of the treaty rights, and the right to education that is in the Point Elliott Treaty [the treaty between the U.S. government and the tribes of the Puget Sound region],” said Matt Remle, lead liaison with the district.

Because of that the liaison program’s funding comes from the federal government.

Tulalip Tribes' advocate program has a similar goal, but comes from Tulalip Youth Services.

“They are two different programs that work cohesively,” said Remle.

The advocates were added to help the school by the Tulalip Tribes.

“There was a lot of work for just the five liaisons,” said Ricky Belmont, a Native advocate who works at M-PHS.

“The Tribe was able to say ‘hey, I think they need some help,’” he said.

The Marysville School District has around 1,200 Native American students, accounting for about 10 percent of the district’s population.

“Which may not sound high to a lot of folks, but in terms of Native populations that’s pretty high,” said Remle, who added the district has one of the highest Native populations in the state.

The liaisons and advocates support students in a number of different wants, helping with social and emotional skills in elementary school, with transitioning into and out of middle school, and helping with graduating on time.

The U.S. education system has not always served the best interests of Native Americans though, with the country’s history of boarding schools that suppressed culture, often through violence. Distrust of that system still remains for some.

“A lot of times our teachers say ‘well, why doesn’t the student want to learn,’ or ‘why aren’t the parents connecting with us,’” said Parker.

“With our indigenous students we know there is a deep pain that is left over from the boarding schools,” she said.

Parker’s own father was sent to a boarding school, she said. “That's not ancient history.” 

Right now about 70 percent of Native students graduate from the district, said Remle.

“It’s still less than the general population, but I will say that I started in 2004 and the graduation rate then was around 38 percent,” he said.

“There’s been a massive increase and I credit our staff,” he said.

The group of liaisons and advocates also work together to push more Native voice and perspectives into the schools.

“I think Pilchuck and Getchell are hungry for the culture,” said Belmont.

“We heard loud and clear that they want more. They don’t want to feel like they’re learning from one set of standards, that standard being euro-centric,” said Parker.

That includes after-school activities for students and families to be a part of, and improvements to the curriculum as well.

“One of the things we’re working on is trying to get the Lushootseed language taught at Marysville-Pilchuck,” said Remle.

The language is already taught at Heritage High School and would count as a second language credit the same way a Spanish or French class would.

They hope to help the broader community as well.

“Not only for our Native students, but their families and others to help learn about who we are and what’s important to us,” said Parker.

Providing that familiarity is important for the whole community, said Native advocate and Tulalip Tribal member Zee Jimicum, who is a parent of a son who used to have a friend come over when they lived in Sunnyside.

“The year after we moved onto the reservation he wasn’t allowed to come over. Nothing different about who we were or who I was as a parent,” she said. “That’s why its important to have that connection.”

Those who worked in the program said they enjoyed it, although it was tough at times.

“There’s a deep love and compassion that our staff members have, but the underlying issues are of grief and loss. Loss of our languages, cultures and lands,” said Parker.

Jimicum said advocates are often part of the Tulalip community, so they know the kids inside and outside of school.

“I’ve known some kids all through elementary school, middle school and high school, and watched them graduate,” she said.

“And that’s just an amazing feeling to know you’re investment goes a long way.”

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