A focus on California’s Native American students
Native American Heritage Month, celebrated in November, is a time to recognize the significant contributions Native Americans made to the establishment and growth of the United States.
It also serves as a reminder to education leaders that Native American students in California face some of the most significant challenges of any student group. A new CSBA Governance Brief, “Native American Students in California Public Schools,” outlines how Native Americans are among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged K-12 students in the state and, based on several measures, the least connected to school.
Socioeconomic disadvantages and poor school connectedness
With a higher concentration of students in the smallest and most rural counties, 32,500 Native American students (identified as Native Alaskan and American Indian by the California Department of Education) are enrolled in California’s K-12 schools. Socio-economically, more than two in three (67.2 percent) of Native American students are disadvantaged, compared to fewer than one in three white students. Additionally, CSBA’s brief reports that nearly three in four (72 percent) Native American students attend high-poverty schools, where half or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

“High-poverty schools have less access to factors that are key to create educational opportunity, including the most experienced teachers, 21-century facilities, libraries and other resources,” said CSBA Education Policy Analyst Manuel Buenrostro.

In addition to recognizing the number of Native Americans in their district and the socioeconomic challenges they may face, board members are encouraged to take a close look at indicators of school involvement and engagement. According to statewide 2016–17 four-year cohort graduation data, Native American students had the lowest graduation rate of all student groups (68.2 percent), which falls far behind white (87.3 percent) and Asian (93.1 percent) students. Likewise, Native American students have the highest high school dropout rate among all ethnic groups at 5 percent.

Behavioral and disciplinary issues among Native American students are also important factors for school board members to consider. The suspension rate for the demographic group is 7.4 percent, compared to 3.2 percent for white and 1.1 percent for Asian students. Native American students have the highest expulsion rate of all student groups (.25 percent), in contrast to white (.07 percent) and Asian students (0.02 percent).

  • November is Native American Heritage Month.
  • Native American students in California face significant socio-economic barriers and achievement gaps.
  • School board members should focus on local data to target supports for this student group, as well as fostering school connectedness to improve outcomes.
Achievement gaps
Compared to their white and Asian peers, Native American students struggle with meeting or exceeding English language arts/literacy and math standards. According to 2018 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress data, 37.4 percent of Native American students met or exceeded ELA standards, compared to 76.4 percent for Asian students and 64.9 percent for white students. Marginal progress by way of a 4.4 percent increase has been made since 2015 for Native American students.

Similar gaps appear in math, as CAASPP data shows 25.7 percent of Native American students met or exceeded standards in 2018, representing a 3.7 percent improvement since 2015. Asian students recorded an achievement percentage of 73.5 percent, while white students came in at 53.6 percent.

Key factors for board members to consider
There are several factors for board members to consider when addressing the challenges facing Native American students, including enrollment data, access to coursework, achievement gaps, indicators of school connectedness, and programs and curriculum that highlight the achievements of Native American communities. Native American Heritage Month presents a reminder to highlight the foundational contributions these first Americans made to the U.S., and in order to foster improved school connectedness for Native American students, this should be kept in mind year-round (see break-out box for exemplary programs).

“As Native American students are foundational to the Golden State’s cultural fabric, it is critical for governing boards to understand their backgrounds, needs and challenges to provide them with the necessary supports to meet their potential,” Buenrostro said.

Featured district outreach and education programs
San Francisco Unified School District’s Indian Education Program, Title VII offers K-12 academic support, tutoring, events, workshops and Parent Advisory Committee meetings for its American Indian and Alaskan Native students. The program features two annual events: The Wisdom Moving Forward Cultural Event, an-end-of-school-year function in which elders help celebrate the achievements of youth; and the Summer Science Program, which focuses on hands-on activities and field trips. Find more information at

Clovis Unified School District’s Title VII Indian Education Program, in addition to focusing on academics, provides opportunities that promote understanding and respect for Native American heritage, both in and out of the classroom setting, according to the program’s website. The district, which served 513 Native American students in the 2015–16 school year, uses the program’s activities to encourage students to maintain a healthy lifestyle, stay in school and prepare for their futures. Learn more about the program at