My name is Rita Sisti, and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA member with Prescott Unified School District (PUSD). I have spent much of my year of service working to improve our district’s Native American education programs.
Prescott Unified School District’s Native American Education Program exists primarily to increase the academic achievement of Native American students within PUSD, as well as to incorporate culturally relevant activities into their education in order to improve student and family engagement.
The need for these programs is clear. In Arizona, 35.8% of people identifying as Native American live in poverty, versus 17.4% of the overall population (source). Children living in poverty are more likely to experience a wide range of risk factors that lower their academic achievement.
What does this translate to? As the achievement gap among other racial and ethnic groups has narrowed, the achievement gap among Native American students has continued to widen (source). It is estimated that for every 100 Native American kindergartners, only 7 will earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 34 out of every 100 white kindergartners (source). Obviously, there’s some work to do. Programs that target the needs of these students can be a challenge to put in place, but narrowing that achievement gap is worth the work.
As I wrap up my year of service, I am reflecting on everything put in place to give our program a strong foundation. My work has centered around getting our program off the ground, establishing goals for the new school year, and beginning to coordinate services for students.
I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to interact directly with our schools and families to find out what they need. After doing research on similar programs throughout Arizona and the country, I found out that many other programs have established libraries of books for Native American students. I loved the idea of increasing representation in our libraries for our students. After collaborating with our librarians, we purchased over 130 books for our school libraries, focusing on books written by Native American authors and featuring modern, relatable Native American characters.
Purchasing and distributing school supplies for Native American students was another rewarding project. Having the supplies they need to learn is a great way to make sure these students start the year ready to succeed. Since increasing academic achievement is one of our primary goals, distributing school supplies fit perfectly into our program. We distributed school supplies to nearly a third of our eligible students before school started in August.
One of the most challenging parts of my project has been establishing a parent committee for our program. We want our families and students to guide our goals and activities. Finding a group of parents with the time and the desire to help us figure out how to best serve our students has been a challenge. However, after a few small meetings, we finally have a great group with big plans. As I finish up my service, I know these programs are in great hands and will only get better this school year and beyond!
By Rita Sisti, AmeriCorps VISTA, Prescott Unified School District