As Native students continue to struggle in S.D. schools, a Lakota-immersion model emerges

Legislation would allow creation of state-funded charter schools aimed at immersing students in Lakota Indian language, culture and history

Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Elementary School teacher Shanice Nez teaches Lakota language to students; language immersion schools are seen as a way to better reach Native students and to keep the language alive.
Photo Courtesy of Wakanyeja school

For the third time in five years, Native American legislators and supporters of improving Native education in South Dakota have proposed legislation that would allow for creation of state-funded charter schools aimed at immersing students in Lakota Indian language, culture and history.

The latest immersion school bill is one manifestation of a larger, expanding effort to improve education of Native students in South Dakota. Several nonprofit groups and coalitions are seeking change at the legislative level and developing new schools and programs at the community level to improve educational outcomes.

Opponents of the latest Lakota Immersion charter school proposal say the current bill — Senate Bill 139 — siphons too much funding away from school districts where the schools would be located and is not well-written in regard to how the charter schools would be funded, governed and managed.

Senate Bill 139 passed through the Senate Education Committee 6-1 on Feb. 3, and was approved by the full Senate 22-13 on Feb. 9. The measure now heads to the House of Representatives, where it has failed in previous years, and will be heard March 2 by the House Education Committee.

The measure’s prime sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, has provided emotional testimony in his defense of the measure and its potential outcomes for Native youth.


Heinert and others say the consistent failure of the existing public school system shows a great need for reform, and notes that significant research and examples from existing immersion schools show that Native achievement levels and graduation rates improve significantly under the cultural and language-immersion model being presented.

“I’m not saying every kid needs this, because we’ve had Native students that have gone through the public schools system and gotten along just fine, but we have many more who have struggled and not been successful,” Heinert said in an interview with News Watch. “As a former teacher, I have seen kids that had plenty of talent, plenty of ability, but the current schools didn’t make any sense to them, and unfortunately, they either dropped out or got into some trouble because we were talking to them in the wrong way.”

Troy Heinert
Submitted Photo

Finding a path to academic achievement for non-white students in the U.S. has been a challenge for generations and for members of all minority groups. Many factors, including poverty, play a role in lower success levels for minority students.

Native American students have traditionally underperformed in South Dakota public schools by wide margins compared with their white peers and other minority groups in the state. Disparities in performance indicate a clear and consistent ethnic achievement gap, and the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened that gap, according to test scores and other data provided by the State Report Card issued by the Department of Education.

In the 2020-2021 school year, only 14% of Native students were considered proficient in math, compared with 49% of white students. That year, 23% of Native students were proficient in English-language arts, compared with 59% of white students; and in science, only 16% of Native students scored as proficient compared with 48% of white students.

Graduation rates, attendance rates and college/career readiness rates for Native students all lag behind those of their white peers by significant amounts. However, the most telling and worrisome statistic may be the chronic absenteeism rate, which for Native students was 51% in 2020-2021, compared with only 11% for white students. Chronic absenteeism is also tied to poverty, with 32% of economically disadvantaged students chronically absent that year. As evidence of the impacts of the pandemic, Native students saw chronic absenteeism increase to 51% in 2020-21 from 37% in 2018-19, two years before the pandemic.

But supporters of Lakota Immersion in South Dakota say quantitative and qualitative data support the concept that students perform better and feel more comfortable in settings and with curricula that better reflect their identity, culture and history.

On a most basic level, backers of immersion charter schools in South Dakota say it is time to give the concept a try, and that Senate Bill 139, not unlike Senate bills proposed in past sessions, would allow for an experiment they believe can be a game changer in regard to Native student achievement and an overall betterment of life and living standards for Native Americans in South Dakota as adults.


While other immersion schools and educational programs exist on reservations in South Dakota, they tend to be nonprofit institutions that rely on donations and grant awards that can be unsteady and susceptible to the vagaries of the larger economy or giving trends.

Supporters of the measure say adequate, consistent funding levels provided by state support are key to the success of immersion schools and their students.

Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools run independently of traditional local school districts. The schools often focus on improving achievement in underperforming student populations and may place a greater focus on specific teaching methods or subjects not offered in traditional schools. To date, South Dakota has not allowed charter schools to be created.

The Senate bill bases its proposed curriculum largely on the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards, a set of state-approved concepts that provides a framework for teaching Native history and culture. The 35-page set of lesson plans and instructional guidelines includes teaching aids in history, culture, language, treaties, identity and way of life of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux Indians.

Opponents of the current Senate bill uniformly stress their support for improving educational achievement for Native students in South Dakota. This year, opponents of SB 139 are making essentially the same arguments as in past years when the immersion charter school concept was proposed.

Opponents this year include the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, the School Administrators of South Dakota, the South Dakota Education Association and a lobbying arm of the largest school districts in the state, including Sioux Falls.

Two students appear energized by the teachings at the Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Elementary School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, a Lakota Indian immersion school founded in 2020.
Photo Courtesy of Wakanyeja school

Rob Munson, executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota, told News Watch that a new law allowing Lakota Immersion schools is not needed because school districts across the state can already open and manage language-immersion schools. As examples, Munson pointed to Sonia Sotomayor Elementary in Sioux Falls, a publicly run and funded K-5 Spanish-language immersion school; and to a Lakota-language immersion class at Canyon Lake Elementary School within the Rapid City Area Schools system.

Munson and other opponents say they support greater attempts to use language immersion as a way to improve education for Native Americans, but are not confident in the funding and governance mechanisms within the proposed legislation.


“We support it [immersion education], but it can be done today, you just need to work within the parameters of your local school board like they’re doing in Sioux Falls and Rapid City,” he said.

Munson also said the bill as written could allow a single school to consume a disproportionate amount of an overall school district’s budget, including state and federal money and any other revenues, such as from fundraising efforts, concession sales at sporting events or grants given to school districts for other specific purposes.

When it comes to the specific criticism of SB 139, Heinert argues that nothing will change, and nothing will improve for Native students, without a new approach, and that to some extent, it is important to open the immersion schools even if all the details aren’t nailed down precisely at the start. Solving any problems that arise, or addressing issues as they reveal themselves, would be a natural part of the development of the schools, he said.

“Nobody is coming forward with any other answers, so at some point we have to try something else,” Heinert said.

In concluding his Senate committee testimony, Heinert urged lawmakers to be part of a potential solution rather than part of an ongoing problem that is hampering the chances of Native children and adults to be successful.

“We’re kind of hung up on the funding issue, and maybe it is all about the money, though it’s not to us,” he said. “You know where my heart lies, and it’s not going to go away … let’s stop being part of the problem and give these kids and these families a chance. That’s all I’m asking.”

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