GRAND FORKS — A grant for the University of North Dakota's College of Education will be used to support Indigenous teachers in school districts serving American Indian/Native American students.

The grant is for $1.4 million over five years, with the first year being $400,000, according to Renuka de Silva, the principle investigator for the grant and an assistant professor in the teaching, leadership and professional practice department.

De Silva, who grew up in Hawaii, said the grant money will be used to “train, license and support American Indian or Native American preservice teacher candidates in specific ways to address the most significant areas of need to serve American Indian/Native American students serving school districts.” The program areas include early childhood education, elementary education with STEM and placed-based education, and the Lakota and Dakota languages.

The Indigenous Teacher Education program pathway is new for the College of Education and the Indigenous Language Education program at UND, de Silva said. She said the program will provide important opportunities to new preservice teacher candidates.

“This opportunity will enable our preservice teachers to become language teachers and have their own classroom in early childhood education and/or in the elementary that includes STEM/placed-based education once they become in-service teachers,” de Silva said.

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The program, which starts this fall, can take up to 16 students. Some slots have already been taken.

De Silva said this type of program will be important for school districts with higher populations of Indigenous students because those districts don’t always have Native teachers licensed in teacher education and who have expertise in Indigenous teaching methods.

“These new UND programs will help change that over time,” de Silva said. “Our preservice student candidates will learn the pedagogy behind teaching and learning. And moving forward, our preservice teacher candidates will be learning their Indigenous languages and teaching methods from qualified Native scholars.”

De Silva will be the program director and one of the lead professors teaching in the program. Additionally, Joshua Hunter and Julie Robinson, who were also co-principle investigators of the grant, will bring their expertise in placed-based and STEM education, along with many other professors in our early childhood and elementary education.

“The added strength of this new program is the fact that many of the courses will have an Indigenous focus,” de Silva said. “For example, we will have guidance from North and South Dakota cultural practitioners for our placed-based education with a STEM focus.”

Additionally, de Silva said there will be Native scholars, principals, superintendents, education directors and former graduates of UND’s Indigenous Language Education program, which began in 2018, serving on the program’s advisory board.

De Silva said the new ITE program will allow preservice teacher candidates to connect to the land, which is vital in Indigenous cultures and education.

With the support of the Spirit Lake Community and Tate Topa Middle School of Devils Lake Principal Byron Enberg, de Silva helped create an Indigenous Healing Garden, which will be an important aspect of placed-based education that will benefit students.

The Healing Garden is a student-centered learning garden that focuses on food security, cultural dissemination of knowledge and understanding of the importance of ecosystems for the sustainability of Indigenous plants for food and medicine, de Silva said.

“We aim to work together with the learning communities and the parents to inspire and educate students to become stewards of Indigenous practices in agriculture and land management,” she said. “This garden project will directly tie to the school curriculum in many ways while supporting the teaching and learning of our preservice teachers and their field and practicum experiences.”