Photo of Katie Johnston-Goodstar outside Peters HallKatie Johnston-Goodstar

Asking the right questions

Katie Johnston-Goodstar studies how school climate affects Native American youth

Katie Johnston-Goodstar has long studied the various factors that affect the education and development of urban and Native American youth. An assistant professor in the School of Social Work, she is interested in understanding what influences some youth to turn to violence or maybe even join a gang.

Part of the problem, she has found, starts at school. A lot of studies focus on improving individual behaviors or how giving families more resources might help kids stay in school and increase graduation rates. Johnston-Goodstar’s research flips that approach on its head by examining how social and political factors are affecting kids, particularly Native kids.

“I look at how school climate may be influencing youth violence, academic success, truancy, and graduation rates,” she says. One of the main questions she explores is How are institutions pushing native kids out?

It’s a question Johnston-Goodstar understands well.

“School didn’t work for me,” she recalls. She was frequently disciplined and eventually dropped out.

A different perspective on schools

Native communities have historically tenuous relationships with schools, and data as early as the 1920s confirms that negative school experiences for marginalized youth are not new.

“Schools are assumed to be safe places for youth, but for Native youth, these institutions are not neutral,” she says. “This history goes all the way back to early boarding schools.”

Understanding that many of today’s kids are still experiencing school trauma similar to that of nearly a century ago, Johnston-Goodstar approached the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach–Engagement Center (UROC) in North Minneapolis about helping with a community-based, youth participatory action research project.

The Native Youth School Climate Study looks at school climate through a trauma-specific lens. At its heart is a team of 10 Native American researchers. Two are adults who work in the community in other capacities, and the rest are students from public high schools and charter schools in the Twin Cities metro area.

Representing different genders, tribes, and regions, the youth bring different school experiences to the project, ranging from doing well and enjoying classes to having a lot of absences, disciplinary experiences, or dropping out. The students, who refer to themselves as Native youth researchers, along with the two adult researchers and Johnston-Goodstar, examined multiple national surveys on school climate.

“Data gathered from personal and community experience and existing literature indicate that Native students experience disproportionate amounts of bullying in schools, are expelled at higher rates, and experience a lot of psychological trauma at the hands of teachers and administrators,” she explains, “but these experiences and their impacts are rarely measured.”

Research already shows that kids in schools where the climate is rated as low have higher truancy rates and other issues. But there is much more to be learned from an inclusive and indigenized definition of school climate. That’s why Johnston-Goodstar and her research team are developing a new survey that would more accurately reflect the experiences of Native youth.

“We’ve found that current surveys often lack questions that focus on the experience of Native kids,” she explains. “So we’ve added Native-specific questions, including some that focus on experiences of racism, invisibility, and tribally-specific knowledge and pedagogy.”

Johnston-Goodstar is currently seeking funding for phase two of the Native Youth School Climate Study. She and some of the youth researchers would like to administer their survey and gather data on the experiences of Native youth in the region.

“If we’re going to change how Native kids experience school climate,” she says, “we have to ask the right questions and look at how schools aren’t meeting their needs or reflecting their history.”

Learn more about Katie Johnston-Goodstar and the School of Social Work.

Story and photo by Meleah Maynard, courtesy of UROC | December 2016