July 1, 2008

Oregon tribes, university partner to mentor prospective Native teachers


In order to encourage more Native students to enter the teaching field, the University of Oregon and the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon partnered to create a master’s degree program.

Once students are accepted into the program, their tuition is paid and they receive a monthly living stipend of $1,775, a book allowance of $250 per term and $1,500 for a laptop. Altogether, the program runs into the $50,000 range.
Students are about to wrap up another year in the Sapsik’wala program. (Project director Pat Rounds said the word Sapsik’wala means ”teacher” in the Sahaptian language of the Umatilla Tribe.) Upon graduation, this master’s program requires that students teach at a tribal or Title VII-funded school.

Rounds said that an advisory board of nine people, representing the tribes, look for applications from students who are serious about helping young Native students succeed. ”They need to see a commitment,” she said.

Any student with a bachelor’s degree who is enrolled in a federally recognized tribe or is the descendant of an enrolled grandparent can apply to enter the program.

Once students are accepted into the Sapsik’wala program, their tuition is paid and they receive a monthly living stipend of $1,775, a book allowance of $250 per term and $1,500 for a laptop. Altogether, the program runs into the $50,000 range. But if the students teach at a tribal or Title VII school, the federal government absorbs the loan. ”They have to teach for the time they were supported,” Rounds said.

The program runs from June to August of the following year. In some cases, it can be extended for up to two years.

Upon acceptance, the students must pass three standardized tests in order to show competence in a wide range of subjects. Once they pass these tests, and upon graduation, the College of Education recommends them for licensure in the state of Oregon. They can teach in any state that accepts an Oregon teaching credential.

The small, intimate program has a class of five students this year. Rounds said they could take up to 15 students within a two-year period.

What sets this master’s program apart is the support system that is in place for Native students. For starters, students receive academic support through the Office of Multicultural Academic Services. The ”cohort-within-a-cohort” model brings students together for seminars on topics that are relevant to both Native teachers and students.

Programs of study range from the elementary to high school levels.

Student Taralee Suppah, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, said she feels prepared to teach now that she is near completion of her master’s degree. She enjoyed hearing other Native educators share their wisdom during seminars.

”I feel like I am prepared and have been given a great opportunity,” she said. ”I feel like a teacher.”

Suppah, 27, plans on returning to her reservation to teach the fifth grade – the last grade that students attend on the reservation prior to transitioning to public schools. ”I really want to prepare them for that transition,” she said. ”It’s a difficult one for them.”

Student Tyla LaGoy has already accepted a position at a Title VII school in Eugene. She is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. LaGoy, 23, enjoys meeting with her fellow students formally, and they meet often to talk about issues relevant to Natives.

She credits the program for providing her with connections to the teaching world. ”Sapsik’wala provides mentorship for when we leave the program,” she said.

Stephany ”Running Hawk” Johnson always wanted to be a teacher. Her favorite aspect of the program ”is just being in the classroom.” Johnson, 27, said she was impressed with all the information that she gathered at the annual Oregon Indian Education Association conference. Students are required to attend the conference as a part of the program.

Johnson, Oglala Lakota, said that she has sent out multiple applications and feels confident to teach based on the skills she has learned in the program. ”I would definitely encourage anyone to do this,” she said. ”This is a great program and we really need more Native teachers.”

Project co-director Alison Ball, Colville, said the College of Education has been supportive and continues to improve the program with each passing year. This year, they plan on introducing social justice classes to the mix. ”I think the College of Education has been very responsive,” she said. ”I am very encouraged by it.”

There are eight new students in the new cohort and five readying for graduation in August. The program began in 2003 with 17 students and saw nine students the following year. The program had a two-year hiatus due to lack of grant funding. They have received about a combined $4 million in grant funds since the program started.

The application deadline for the Sapsik’wala project is Feb. 15, 2009. For program information, visit

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