PIERRE | Kiva Sam hopes to draw more Native Americans to do what she did — return to the reservation and teach.
The 24-year-old begins her new role this month as a recruiter for the nonprofit Teach for America in hopes of diversifying the South Dakota corps of teachers in the program.
The Oglala Sioux member is considered a legacy corps member because a Teach for America instructor at Little Wound School on the Pine Ridge Reservation made an impact on her. Then she signed up after graduating from Dartmouth College.
Teach For America has expanded since it entered the state in 2004. The percentage of native corps members has also gone up. In 2004, the organization had 17 teachers, 5 percent of whom identified themselves as being native. The 2014-2015 crew includes 78 teachers, about 18 percent native.
The organization works in the state to help ease teacher shortages and the achievement gap between white and native students. It initially served the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations and has expanded to include Standing Rock and Lower Brule.
Teach for America staff said it's important to have Native American teachers on their team. The organization launched the Native Alliance Initiative in 2010 to help recruit more tribal members as teachers and promote culturally responsive teaching.
"I think having native teachers provides that connection to that community and who (students) are as people," said Robert Cook, an Oglala Sioux member and the senior managing director of the Native Alliance Initiative.
The organization has been criticized, including by state Sen. Jim Bradford, a Pine Ridge Democrat, who argued against state funding for the organization. He said teachers only stay for two years and the program charges schools an eighth of their cost to recruit, train and support teachers.
"They're not a poor organization," Bradford said.
In 2012 and 2013 the state provided $250,000 matched, dollar for dollar, by private funds. The state did not provide funding this year, so the organization is currently targeting private contributions.
Sam said she has heard another critique: "Oh, you're just another group of white people trying to come in and save the Indians."
But she would like to see Teach for America build up the teacher base on the reservations to the point where there's no need for the organization at all.
Cook said that might be a too lofty a goal, considering tribal schools get fewer than one application, on average, for every open teaching position.
The shortage of teachers across the state and the changes presented by the housing shortages and rural location of reservation schools will leave a place for Teach for America, he said.
Additionally, fewer than a third of students on South Dakota reservations are reading at their grade level, compared with more than three-fourths of white students in the state. And native students here have the lowest graduation rates of any demographic in any state, said Jim Curran, executive director of South Dakota's Teach for America.
In her new position, Sam will meet with college students and work with Native American groups that could help funnel young people into teacher roles.
"You want to recruit more people from this area" she said. "Because after their two years, you hope they'll stay in the area."