California’s Shasta County seeks to improve Native students’ relationship with public school education

REDDING, Calif. – Gabby Gensaw, a 19-year-old freshman at Shasta College, remembers sitting in her high school history class stunned with disbelief. It was her junior year at Shasta High School and she had just finished watching a documentary about British settlers invading Native American villages. After the video ended, her teacher lectured about Native American aggression towards settlers.

As a member of the Pit River tribe, she couldn’t stay quiet. Native Americans suffered at the hands of settlers and lost their homes and much of their way of life, she said, correcting her teacher. But the misrepresentation of Native Americans in history lessons is one of the several issues that she and other Native students face in the public education system in California.

Gabby Gensaw, 19, posing for her senior pictures in 2020. (Photo by Valentino Renteria)

“I think that schools should get more detail as to what happened in history. It explains us in a horrible light,” she said. 

She recounted what it was like to convince teachers and administrators that she had to miss school days to attend sacred Native American ceremonies and cultural events, which could last days. Sometimes, bringing a note to school wasn’t enough to excuse an absence and she would find a truancy letter in the mail soon after. 

And even if her absence was excused, that wouldn’t stop her from being counted chronically absent, or missing at least 10% of school days in an academic calendar year for any reason, including excused absences, unexcused absences, or disciplinary exclusion.

Native students are more likely to face harsh discipline and lower academic outcomes than their non-indigenous peers in public schools, according to a 2019 report from researchers at the Sacramento Native American Higher Education Collaborative (SNAHEC). The statewide suspension rate for Native American students is 7.2%, compared to the overall statewide average of 3.5%.

And Native American students are chronically absent at nearly double the rate of the statewide average, according to the California Department of Education. When the data was released in 2017, the statewide average chronic absenteeism rate was 10.8%, while Native students were chronically absent at 20.9%.

“Every time we present this research there are tears that come out of it because a lot of us think that we are by ourselves. That our students are the ones that are being suspended and have this chronic absenteeism that we are punished for as Native parents with truancy letters, said Dr. Vanessa Esquivido, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at California State University and a contributing author to the report. “We internalize this as individualized.” 

“So many people experience this and so many people went through this and seeing it is validation. It’s extremely saddening but empowering because you know that you’re not alone,” she added.

In Shasta County, where 4% of the student population is Native American, the Shasta County Office of Education is crafting new lesson plans to teach students Native American history and improve attendance. Some school districts marked as much as 30% of their Native student population chronically absent when the efforts began, Shasta County Office of Education Superintendent of Schools (SCOE), Judy Flores, said. 

culture-based education programs and services, on a summer outing in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Gabby Gensaw)

SCOE created the American Indian Advisory Board (AIAB), partnering with school administrators, community organizers and representatives from each of the four tribes in Shasta County to support Native students, encourage efforts in schools to share Native American history, and eradicate prejudice, Flores said.

She contacted state legislators to share the issue with ceremonies and student absences and assembly woman Megan Dahle introduced AB 3292 in 2019, excusing absences for cultural ceremonies. The bill was stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Native Americans have had a horrific relationship with the education system since its beginning, Esquivido said. Up until the 1970’s, Native children were taken away from their families, put into boarding schools, and forced to assimilate. 

In California, many Native American students are suspended due to “willful defiance,” for standing up for their culture or resisting school systems that fail to respect Native American culture or identity, the report indicated.

Before the pandemic began, one of the first things the AIAB did was survey Native families throughout Shasta County to find out how students are doing in school, why kids are missing school and what can be done about it. 

The results found two of the leading causes of absences among the student demographic to be because of sacred ceremonies, which happen at different times throughout the year depending on the tribe, and because of death in the family.

The board is also working on lesson plans to teach the county’s students about the local history of the four Native tribes in Shasta County – he forced removal and assimilation, genocide, and geographic impacts and loss of resources tribes have suffered. 

They will also teach the connection Native Americans have to the land, the unfulfilled treaties and forced boarding school admissions, and how this has affected the thriving tribes today, said Kelly Rizzi, Shasta County Office of Education Director of District Support Services.

“Honestly I’ve been in education for 30 years in this community and I had no idea. No one ever talks about it and I had never heard about it. The deep wounding that occurred was only 2 or 3 generations ago. People now will tell you that their grandma was taken and moved by a bus to put into a boarding school,” Rizzi said. “The lessons are to shift the culture and climate in the community by educating people and by educating children. That will affect the generations to come.”

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So far, only about 80-100 of the county’s more than 1,400 teachers are informed about Native history and issues students face but that has already impacted the community and the percentage of chronic absenteeism in the county.

In 2019, the chronic absenteeism rate among Native youth had dropped from 21.4% to 17.5% in Shasta County. That means 51 fewer Native students were absent in schools. Measurements are still being taken since the coronavirus pandemic began and it’s too early to tell the long-term effects on students, Flores said.

Although COVID-19 has changed the way schools hold classes, some through distance learning, hybrid classes, or full-time in person instruction, Rizzi plans to release the county-wide third, fourth, fifth, and eighth grade lesson plans for superintendent approval in the fall of 2021, she said. Lessons are based on the California History Social Science Standards as a foundation and the voices of the cultural consultants from each of the four tribes.

“We want to tell stories that have never been allowed to have been told before of the historical trauma here on our soil and to begin to reconnect our Native families to public schools,” Rizzi said. “For years, public schools were weaponized against them. We really have a lot of people that don’t know this.”

Kenwa Kravitz’s daughter Mercy and the Native student class graduating from Shasta High School in 2017 at the Indian education graduation ceremony. (Courtesy of Mercy Kravitz)

As a student who grew up in the Shasta County public school system, and now an AIAB member and cultural consultant, Kenwa Kravitz, Pit River and Wintu, said it was not uncommon to hear derogatory language used in reference to Native Americans when she was in school.

“Not only hearing how ‘savage’ my people were but how everything that was taught about them was in a negative light, and didn’t reveal the resilience of the people having come through genocide and still contributing to society. To be excluded from the narrative has had a really negative impact on the students,” Kravitz said.

Her relatives and ancestors are fighting to be included, she said. And she’s grateful to be at the table, making decisions that will support students.

“We all understand how powerful this work is and have that common feeling that brought us together and solidified our relationships. Even going back and sitting with the different teachers to develop the curriculum and have those conversations to tell hard truths and have them in tears… It’s very powerful,” she said.  

Her daughter, Mercy Kravitz, a 22-year-old senior at Northwest Indian College who graduated from Shasta High School in 2017, said it’s time for a shift to take place in schools. She still remembers sitting uncomfortably in classes while listening to a narrative that erased her tribe from the history books.  

“We’re sitting there in class and we’re hearing horrible stuff about our people and lies and we feel so uncomfortable and unheard,” she said. “They make it sound in the history books that nothing happened to our people and they needed to change who we were because who our creator made us out to be wasn’t OK. They covered up all the massacres, murders and generational trauma. And we are still dealing with that. I’m dealing with that,” she said.

Nada Atieh covers education, childhood trauma and the achievement gap for the Redding Record Searchlight. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @nadatieh_RS