The University of Washington's new two-year Native Education Certificate blends online learning with hands-on projects to build relationships in Native American communities.

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The Wellpinit School District is a public K-12 system within the Spokane Indian Reservation, serving about 400 mostly Native American children.

Most of its teachers, however, are not Native American, and a common question in the tribal community is whether non-Natives are qualified to teach Native children.

“Some of the community members really felt that the staff was and is inadequately prepared to teach these kids,” said Polo Hernandez, who was hired by the district 17 months ago to oversee a federal grant aimed at improving Native American education.

Wellpinit educators hope to forge stronger relationships with the tribe through a new two-year Native Education Certificate.

The 10-credit course aims to help teachers gain a deeper understanding of how their Native American students learn within their own cultures so that lessons are more relevant and meaningful. It will blend online learning with hands-on projects in the communities where students live.

The program is still accepting applications through the end of May for the first group of educators  and a lot of them will likely come from Wellpinit, which already has 42 teachers and community members who have expressed interest.

The Wellpinit contingent is so large that it will receive its own three-day summer institute at home instead of having to travel to Seattle.

Tribal members have worked with the University of Washington for more than nine years developing the program, which will be led by Associate Professors Megan Bang and Elizabeth West.

Although tribal history is taught in Washington schools, the certificate is more focused on Native American teaching approaches that emphasize people’s place in relationship within the natural world instead of treating nature as something apart from humans.

“The requirement to teach about Native people is great, but just teaching about Native people isn’t going to change the needle for Native kids at all. So our certificate program is actually focused on how to teach,” Bang said in an interview earlier this year. “There was such a demand from tribal leaders for this.”

Wellpinit hopes the certificate also will help other adults in the community, such as scientists who work with the Department of Natural Resources, when they are invited to school to share their expertise with children.

The community projects, overseen by Native advisers, will provide an opportunity for teachers and community members to come together outside the classroom.

“We’re hoping that will create those relationships that will really transfer to our students and to our teaching,” said Kim Ewing, principal of Wellpinit’s elementary school.