Rethinking data to better understand and support Indigenous youth

Ensuring Indigenous communities have a seat at the table when it comes to determining how tribal data is collected and analyzed is a crucial first step in improving educational outcomes among young people, according to a panel of experts who spoke during a webinar hosted by WestEd on March 27.

Tribal Data Collection and Governance: Principles of Practice and Partnerships — the first of a two-part series in partnership with the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center, National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and University of New Mexico Center for Participatory Research — emphasized that data is foundational to transforming outcomes for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students.

“Despite the slow progress that we have seen in native education in the past 100 years, NIEA firmly believes that this has not been enough to change the narrative for our young people, for our communities,” said Casie Wise, senior program director for the NIEA. “It’s not been enough to grow a strong national workforce of native educators and leaders in this space. Data sovereignty is and must be a critical foundation to native education.”

Data sovereignty refers to a group or individual’s right to control and maintain their own data, including the collection, storage and interpretation of data.

Michele Suina, program director for the Albuquerque Area Southwest Tribal Epidemiology Center and member of the U.S. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network, noted that ensuring Indigenous peoples and nations have the right and ability to govern the collection, ownership and application of their own data is “a critical step for changing our learning systems.”

Reflecting on how this may look in practice, Suina said, “it would definitely look different compared to some of the deficit-based data that we typically see,” and would likely better reflect Indigenous youth and their potential.

Jerad Koepp, Native student program specialist for North Thurston Public Schools and the 2022 Washington state teacher of the year, said he has seen that scenario play out in his own schools.

“One of the things we’re seeing each day as we assert our presence in data, as we try to find all of our kiddos, is that sometimes when we run the data, it challenges the dominant narrative that native people are at the maximum at-risk category in just about anything that you name,” he said. “As we’re creating better data studies, we’re starting to see that in several grades, our students are actually outperforming non-native students.”

On the flip side, by tracking student groups too small to be considered statistically significant for state or federal accountability purposes, “we can actually pinpoint an individual student need — because maybe that grade only has three or four Native students, and now we can focus on an individualized support,” Koepp said. “A big part of exercising data sovereignty is humanizing it. It’s about personifying all of those data points on any sort of chart that we have and realizing that we’re talking about people and experiences.”


California is home to 109 federally recognized Indian tribes, including several tribes with lands that cross state boundaries, as well as about 81 tribes seeking federal recognition.

State data show that in the 2021–22 academic year, 43.6 percent of K-12 American Indian/Alaska Native students were chronically absent compared to a rate of 30 percent for all students. That same year, 6.5 percent of Indigenous students were suspended for at least one day compared to a rate of 3.2 percent for all students, graduated at a rate of 78.8 percent compared to a rate of 87 percent for all students, and had lower rates of school stability (84.5 percent compared to 89.8 percent for all students). Students are determined to have a “stable” enrollment during the academic year if they remain at the same school for 245 consecutive calendar days without a disqualifying exit.

After Judy Flores was hired as superintendent of Shasta County Office of Education in 2017, the county board of education looked at the data and found attendance policies that did not accommodate Native ceremonial and cultural observations attributed to a 21 percent chronic absence rate among Indigenous youth. This and other findings led to the 2019 formation of the COE’s American Indian Advisory, made up of local tribal members, community organizations, educators and SCOE employees. The group began to address a variety of challenges raised in the listening sessions in which it was revealed that there was deep disconnect between tribal families and schools in Shasta County.

In 2020, the California Department of Education’s data included for the first time broad reasons why students missed school in the 2017–18 and 2018–19 academic years: excused absences, unexcused absences, absences due to out-of-school suspension and incomplete independent study absences. In Humboldt County, education officials found overall absences and absences among Native youth were even higher than state averages.

Humboldt COE leaders related this data to the county’s high rate of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect or “household dysfunction” including parental incarceration; mental illness; substance dependence; parental separation or divorce; or intimate partner violence.

Throughout the country, ACE scores are significantly higher in Indigenous American communities than in the broader population, according to the Association of American Indian Physicians, which has developed a toolkit to help address ACEs among Native American youth.

Humboldt County has a drastically higher rate of ACEs than other parts of the state. In response to the data, Humboldt County schools began working to provide “mental health support through interagency partnerships on school campuses.”