Alumna dedicates career to American Indian education

Jessica Buterbaugh
April 28, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Talk to any teacher about the education profession, and they'll likely say that it is about more than just teaching. It's about inspiring kids and giving them opportunities to be successful in all aspects of life, regardless of economic status or the color of their skin.

Penn State alumna Jane Harstad, a member of the Red Cliff band of the Ojibwe tribe, loved her time in the classroom teaching elementary students in Minnesota. But as an American Indian educator, she knew she needed to do more for her American Indian students, who often fall below the academic curve. Before she could better help them, she needed to get more education for herself. That's when she came to Penn State.

"If it wasn't for the American Indian Leadership Program, I wouldn't have been able to get my master's and Ph.D.," she said.

The American Indian Leadership Program (AILP) was established using Federal government funding in 1970 to train native educators to be leadership to American Indian nations. More than 200 students from various tribes throughout North America have participated in the program.

"As a single parent of four on a teacher's salary, I definitely didn't have the money to go back to school by myself. My thinking at the time was that I knew I could do more than what I was doing as a teacher for American Indian students and also that I could do more to help my own family."

— Jane Harstad, '06 M.Ed., '12 Ph.D.

"As a single parent of four on a teacher's salary, I definitely didn't have the money to go back to school by myself," Harstad said. "My thinking at the time was that I knew I could do more than what I was doing as a teacher for American Indian students and also that I could do more to help my own family. The AILP provided that scholarship for me to be able to do that."

When she arrived at Penn State in 2005, Harstad met her AILP cohort, a group that would support each other through their graduate program and later in their careers and lives.

"Without my friends, seriously lifelong friends from all over the country, I don't think any of us would have made it through by ourselves because Pennsylvania and State College was so far removed from what we had known," she said.

Although she graduated from AILP with her master's in educational leadership in 2006, Harstad and her children stayed in State College for an additional six years while she worked toward her doctorate in educational leadership.

"Once I was there, I realized I had so much more to learn so I just stayed and did my doctorate as well," she said.

During that time, she took advantage of every opportunity to advance American Indian education, including working with the State College Area School District to update its curriculum.

"I was surprised to learn that the State College Area School District even had an American Indian curriculum because, well, why would they have one, right?" she said.

Although the district was a step ahead of many other districts in regard to offering lessons on American Indians, Harstad immediately found issues with the curriculum that she said are indicative of a lot of curricula around the country.

"A lot of their lessons were outdated and it was all in the past tense," she said.  "So, we worked together to revise the entire curriculum to reflect present and some future tense. We also revised the literature because there are new books being written all the time by native authors."

When it comes to native students, it's important for educators to realize that they're not much different from other students, Harstad said. It is the education system that treats them differently, she said, and, often times misrepresents American Indian history and heritage.

"My learning at Penn State was so much more than just going to classes and passing them, and it wasn't just a place to be for a little while. Penn State was an experience."

— Jane Harstad

"Many times, when these students open history books to read about Native American history, they're inferred to be gone or they don't exist or they are just omitted from the books, or American Indians are discussed in a destructive way or there are untruths about them," she said.

"When students go to school, they should be able to look at their surroundings and the resources and say, 'I see people just like me,'" Harstad said. "So when an American Indian student comes into a school and sees that there is no reflection, it's telling them that they're not as important as other students."

This is a common issue that many minority students experience, Harstad said, but specifically native students, who make up just 1 percent to 2 percent of the population. The lack of reflection they see in schools, coupled with a cultural characteristic of being shy, can lead to academic setbacks, something Harstad experienced firsthand.

"I did not learn how to read until I was in third grade," she said. "That was because I was always trying to be quiet and not catch the attention of the teacher or the other students. I just wanted to follow the rules and not get in trouble. So by the third grade, I literally did not know how to read."

Harstad said she was fortunate that her teacher did notice her and her inability to read, and provided her with intensive reading intervention that year.

"Since then, I have been an avid reader," she said. "I just needed somebody to notice me and help me."

After she graduated with her doctorate in 2012, Harstad moved back to Minnesota to serve the population that inspired her to continue her own education. When she returned, she was met with a failing economy and started working at a native-owned bookstore while also serving as an educational consultant for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. In 2016, she was named principal of Nay Ah Shing Tribal School, and as of March 1, she is the director of Indian Education for the state of Minnesota.

"When I heard about this job opening at the Minnesota American Indian Education Association conference last year, I knew that this would be the job that would allow me to use all of my skills I learned at Penn State," she said. "Because of my time at Penn State, coming into this job, I'm not as frightened of the system as I probably would have been otherwise."

While she still is learning the many duties associated with her new role, Harstad said one of her primary responsibilities is to act as a liaison between tribal communities and public school districts.

"Ninety-six percent of native students in Minnesota actually attend public school," she said. "Under ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), schools must now talk with tribes about what's going on with their native schools and the native students that are in their schools."

Harstad also is working on a new children's literature initiative that aims to include in schools books that positively and accurately reflect American Indian culture, something she said her time at Penn State has prepared her to do.

"One of the things that proverbially comes up is that people don't understand American Indian children's literature as they should," she said. "The native students attending schools are constantly telling us that their books are biased, stereotypical, outdated, inaccurate, etc. So one of the things I'm working on right now is trying to put together a statewide training for librarians to look at American Indian children's literature in a different way."

"My learning at Penn State was so much more than just going to classes and passing them, and it wasn't just a place to be for a little while," Harstad said. "Penn State was an experience."

*Editor's note: The absence of Federal government funding for the AILP in recent years has prompted the faculty to redesign the program. The planning process is currently in progress.

  • Jane Harstad

    Jane Harstad came to Penn State in 2005 as part of the American Indian Leadership Program (AILP). Today, she focuses her career on improving education for native students in Minnesota.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Jane Harstad

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Last Updated May 03, 2017