Stronger Connections Improve Outcomes for Native Boys and Young Men


“Native boys and young men are an underserved, neglected demographic – statistically invisible and ignored by society – and the existing data paints a dire picture of them in relation to opportunities in life that are suppressed starting at a young age.” ~ Michael E. Roberts, First Nations President and CEO

Efforts that foster stronger linkages between Native American boys and young men and their cultures and communities can help significantly improve the outcomes of their lives, including their social and educational attainment, according to a new report issued recently by First Nations Development Institute (First Nations).

The report, titled “Advancing Positive Paths for Native American Boys & Young Men: A Project Evaluation,” was prepared following a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NEO Philanthropy, and the Kalliopeia Foundation. It is available as a free download from the First Nations Knowledge Center at (Note: If you don’t already have one, you will have to create a free online account in order to download the report.)

A Cocopah youth participates in CPR training.

Under the project, First Nations supported five program models in Native American communities aimed at connecting and mentoring Native boys and young men. The report notes that “improving outcomes for youth in Indigenous communities remains an important area of research and program intervention” that can inform Native education on a larger scale. It highlighted the five innovative programs that are restructuring the pedagogical approaches toward fostering linkages to cultural communities and enhancing relationality among Native boys and young men.

Participants in the project were the Cocopah Indian Tribe and the STAR School, both in Arizona, the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute and Tewa Women United, both in New Mexico, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas.

“Native boys and young men are an underserved, neglected demographic – statistically invisible and ignored by society – and the existing data paints a dire picture of them in relation to opportunities in life that are suppressed starting at a young age,” said Michael E. Roberts, First Nations President and CEO. “They have one of the highest middle and high school dropout rates among ethnic groups, and are much more likely to be suspended from high school compared to white boys and young men. Worse, the suicide rate is higher, too. This report and the programs supported really highlight the idea that Native boys and young men have better outcomes in life when they retain connection to their Native cultures and traditions, and have positive role models in these areas. We need to build on these findings and enhance their scale across Native America.”

According to the report, studies reveal that both on and off reservations, many schools are not providing an appropriate education for Native students in a manner that incorporates their Native heritage through teaching and curriculum. This structural and institutional racism results in discontinuity between their home culture and what is taught in school, often contributing to disengagement and increased dropout rates.

Cocopah Tribe Engages & Empowers Boys & Young Men

Young Cocopah student during CPR training. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

For more than a decade, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has had a positive and lasting impact on Native youth. In 2002, First Nations launched the Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF) to enhance culture and language awareness, and promote youth empowerment, leadership and community building.

Recently, First Nations unveiled a new grant initiative that reflects our growing commitment to Native youth and youth development: Advancing Positive Paths for Native American Boys and Young Men (Positive Paths). Positive Paths, created in partnership with NEO Philanthropy and and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, seeks to reduce social and economic disparities for Native American males.

Studies suggest that Native American males are more likely to be absent from school, suspended, expelled or repeat a grade. However, a growing body of research indicates that suspensions and expulsions are not always the most effective means of reaching and disciplining these students.

Often, these punitive measures deprive students of the opportunity to develop the skills and strategies they need to succeed. Positive Paths supports innovative programs that emphasize alternative approaches to punitive measures that have a negative impact on academic achievement and graduation rates.

For years, the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona relied upon the public school system for enforcing truancy laws for its students. This approach yielded little to no results, especially among male students. Educators decided to take a new approach that emphasized engaging and empowering Native American boys and men.

In 2014, First Nations awarded the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona $50,000 through the Positive Path grant initiative to restructure its truancy program. The tribe’s new program has reduced truancy rates among Native American males by nearly 75 percent. As a result, student grades and graduation rates have increased significantly, as much as 25 to 50 percent.

The Credit Recovery and Career Exploration (CRACE) program links at-risk male youth to the people and resources they need to recover academic credits, to pursue future career opportunities and develop leadership skills. Students enroll in online classes and work with tutors to successfully complete their courses and graduate.

Students participate in mock trial. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

Additionally, the program introduces student to careers that have the potential to strengthen and empower their tribal community. Since starting the CRACE program, participating Cocopah students have undergone CPR training, participated in mock trial exercises, and explored career opportunities in medicine and law enforcement.

Students participate in regular meetings with staff and instructors to provide feedback and discuss future plans. During the first meeting, education department staff members noted that many students seemed unsure about their future plans and goals. Over the past year, many students have narrowed down their focus, applying to college or preparing to enter the workforce.

Additionally, staff members have noted that this program helps instill students with a sense of pride in themselves and their community. One education department staff noted, “This program has helped make our students, their families and the community stronger. The program has already shown we can make a real positive difference in our students’ lives. This year we have had a dozen participating students make a 180-degree turnaround in regard to their grades, school attendance and personal attitudes.”

CRACE has received support from the tribe and the tribal community. According to the education department, tribal council members often act as mentors to at-risk youth. They also note that the tribe has recently passed a resolution that makes it mandatory for every tribal member to receive a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for benefits. This resolution sends a strong message to students: education is the key to strengthening and empowering their communities.

The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona’s CRACE program demonstrates the success of alternative techniques in inspiring students to achieve their education and take personal responsibility for their journey. CRACE brochures send the message loud and clear to students who utilize the service: “Your dreams are within reach. You just have to graduate high school to realize them.”

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator