Jason Dropik is a school administrator working towards a principal certification.
Holly Lebeck, a junior, is pursuing a degree in social studies and is preparing to work with fourth through eighth graders.
Elizabeth Hennessey, also a junior, is pursuing a degree in English Education with a focus on middle school.
All three of these UWM School of Education students benefit from funding and support through an Electa Quinney Institute program designed to prepare Native American teachers and administrators. The Leaders from the Good Land: Electa Quinney Indian Education Development program was established more than a dozen years ago with funding from the US Department of Education’s Bureau of Indian Education.
A fourth round of funding is currently supporting three administrators and five prospective teachers, including two from UW-Superior, and a sixth is about to start. (In the last funding period, UWM received two grants—$1,044,850 for teacher preparation and $358,533 for administrator preparation.)
Dropik, a principal at Indian Community School in Franklin and a member of Lake Superior Ojibwe’s Bad River Band, said he thinks it’s important to keep honing his skills as an administrator and leader.
“There aren’t enough Native American school leaders and educational leaders across the country, so it was important to me to be able to continue my education to follow this path and show people what’s possible,” he said.
Dropik earned his bachelor’s degree from UWM’s School of Education with support from the American Indian Education Grant.
Lebeck said she felt destined to be a teacher for Native American students. She enjoyed playing with her younger brothers at school but didn’t know much about her origins growing up.
That changed when she began doing genealogy research with her mother after her father, who was Potawatomi, “moved on”. (She explains that Native Americans use this term for those who have died, reflecting a belief that death is not final and “our ancestors live on and influence us.”) She began to side with her father with her family history to deal with. “I really started to feel this connection to my ancestors. I felt like they were telling me, ‘Don’t forget me.’ I feel led here.”
A member of the Stockbridge Munsee tribe, Hennessey always wanted to be a teacher and was encouraged by others. “That’s about the only thing I’ve ever considered.”
One of the reasons she chose to major in Native American Education was to learn more about her own background and to help other Native American students learn more about their common heritage.
“I wanted to be open to helping other students, especially when they’re in my situation where they might not look like a local or feel unsafe in their originality,” Hennessey said.
Five Year Professional Development Awards
The program provides five-year career development awards with a possible one-year extension. It is designed to support up to three years of education and two years of introductory services to help students obtain educational licenses, job placements, and retain Native American educators in the field. Students who receive the grant should work in Native American schools or in districts with a high proportion of Native American students.
The institute’s namesake, Electa Quinney, is considered Wisconsin’s first female public school teacher. A member of the Stockbridge-Mohican tribe, she taught Native American and white children at a one-room block school that opened in 1828.
Support is important to students in the program.
“I was grateful for the opportunity,” Dropik said. With work and family – he and his wife have three children aged 12 to 20 – there have been obstacles to continuing his education. “Without that, I might not have been able to embrace the learning and experiences that were part of my journey.”
Program provides security
Lebeck, who has three children, said the program provides security. “The money helps our family not to worry about how I will continue my studies,” said Lebeck. “It gives us this feeling of security.
“Electa Quinney is very supportive of my journey,” she added. “Every course of study and every subject is different. Institute staff always say, “What is your path and what can we do to support you” instead of saying, “This is what we want you to do.”
“It was really important, especially during COVID,” Hennessey says of the support she received when she found online classes challenging. “It really took a huge load off me. Even when I was struggling, they didn’t make me afraid to fight back, which is really, really good.”
Sharing cultural background
It’s important for the students to be able to share their cultural background, because that was something they didn’t always have in their school days.
“Growing up, I felt like it wasn’t talked about,” Hennessey said. “My family didn’t want to be asked questions I couldn’t answer.”
Dropik recalls struggling with his identity when he started high school. “I looked different than others I grew up with. In my ninth year of high school, I didn’t have any teachers or administrators to help me with that, so I struggled academically.”
Lebeck, who studies the Potawatomi and Ojibwe languages at UWM, also shares her heritage. She has reconnected with her father’s family, who live on a reservation in Oklahoma. Her children transferred to Indian Community School and now participate in powwows and learn traditional crafts like making moccasins and designing bow skirts. “We do a prayer ceremony in the morning. It’s a nice way to get ready for the day.”
Dropik’s son, who was the best in his eighth grade at Indian Community School, had different experiences than his father. “He was able to take language classes that I didn’t have when I was growing up,” Dropik said. “He’s a great example of what’s possible when you have structures and systems and support and you understand who you are.”