November is Native American Heritage Month, and one school district is taking steps to better recognize Native students.
Mandan Public Schools recently hired a “Student/Family & Cultural and Wellness Advocate” — but to students, he’s a mentor.
“He helps me with mostly everything. He’s a really cool guy,” Jeffrey Poorman, a sixth-grader in the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said.
Travis Albers was hired to make Native American students feel more connected in school and the community.
“Kids see someone like them. They see themselves in me and someone they can aspire to be, hopefully I can set a good example,” Albers said.
Albers was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and is currently enrolled in the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe. He says he can relate to students struggling to transition from the reservation to the classroom.
“I know a lot of our kids like myself coming off the reservation coming to a place where there was not a lot of culture offered, like having sweat lodges, and our ceremonies and stuff, like this was a big culture shock for me,” Albers said.
He says his personal experience encourages students to open up about their own cultures, which translates to success in the classroom, too.
“What can we do about increasing our graduate levels, test scores? With a position like this we can address those things,” Albers said.
But it’s not just the new position — the high school now offers a Native American studies course and started a club called “Four Directions” to encourage conversations among students of different backgrounds.
Sophomore Kylah Burr is part of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and said she is happy to see the changes.
“Outside the reservation it’s nice to have that appreciation in classes and clubs,” Burr said.
Lily Giggee is part of the Lakota Sioux Tribe and says the Four Directions Club, the Native American Studies class and having Mr. Albers around, help her feel welcome.
“It makes me feel wanted and accepted, and feel like, ‘Hey I get to learn more about my culture than having to learn one side of the story,'” Giggee said.
Albers’s position was funded through a comprehensive literacy state development grant. He said the Four Directions club has just a handful of students now because it’s been hard to gather this year with COVID-19, but he expects it to grow.