SHERIDAN — The effort to build a new center for improving educational opportunities in Native American communities is set to move forward this week. After nearly a year of planning, the public unveiling of a feasibility study for a proposed institute and think tank at the north end of Sheridan will take place today.
For officials at the First People’s Center for Education, excitement over the institute is palpable.
“It really has the possibility to do innovative educational research,” said Charitina Fritzler, executive director of the education-focused and locally based operation.
Expected to open in 2017, the roughly 10,000 square foot building at the Wrench Ranch will be built on four acres of land donated to the center by Neltje and Butch Jellis.
The feasibility study, made possible largely by a planning grant from the Wyoming Business Council, sets the stage for the organization to begin its capital fundraising campaign in earnest.
Officially established as a nonprofit in 2004, the First People’s Center for Education began working with educators of Native American children in 1999. The organization was originally known as the National American Indian, Alaskan and Hawaiian Educational Development Center.
Based on the idea that schools in native communities often face unique challenges — including high teacher and administrator turnover, difficulties associated with recruiting and a general unfamiliarity of teachers with American Indian cultures — the center works to better prepare educators to take on the challenges facing the students they teach.
Currently, the center is actively involved with 19 public and private elementary schools in Alaska, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. Depending on the unique needs of the school, the organization works to strengthen educators’ teaching ability — a capacity known in the academic world as pedagogy — while imparting on them a strong understanding of their students’ cultural backgrounds.
“It’s that careful, exact intersection between content and pedagogy,” Fritzler said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on.”
While many educators of native populations are well intentioned, center officials said their lack of knowledge about their students’ backgrounds can sometimes lead to a kind of cultural erosion.
As a result, the center works with educators to help them continue instilling in their students personal and academic lessons but within the context of their community’s heritage.
Contrary to what center officials said was a common misconception, the group does not work to impart its own curriculum on schools. Rather, it focuses on enabling educators to more effectively execute their existing plans of study.
“We don’t view ourselves as competition to any of the state education agencies,” said Director of Development Rod Trahan. “We see ourselves as a partner.”
Fritzler said the center’s forthcoming Sheridan Institute will allow the organization to draw on its wide network of education experts to help teachers and administrators from around the world better understand the complexities involved with teaching student bodies comprised mainly of indigenous peoples.
In addition to the feasibility study, city of Sheridan officials earlier this month applied for a $1.5 million infrastructure grant to expand services in the Wrench Ranch area.
The nonprofit center also accepts donations of both money and talent to further its mission.