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Native Sun News: Oglala man focuses on reservation teachers

Filed Under: Education | National
More on: native sun news, oglala sioux, south dakota

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Robert Cook

Making the grade
Cook strives to build strong network of Native teachers
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY — Reservation schools across the country score lower on standardized tests, have lower graduation rates than off-reservation schools and often struggle to recruit teachers who have the credentials and ability to connect with students.

Robert Cook, however, through his work with Teach For America is in the process of changing these startling trends.

For over 20 years, Cook, who is an Oglala Lakota, has been an educator and advocate for Native American students in South Dakota and across the country. Also during this time, he has been recognized for his work from a wide variety of organizations, including Little Wound and Lower Brule schools, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation and the National Indian Education Association. Cook has been named teacher of the year by all four entities.

In 2005, he was named as a Milken Educator Award winner, which recognizes educators who show exemplary ability in the classroom that could be used as a model for others in the profession. The award also recognizes teachers who show measurable results in improving the quality of education for the students they are teaching. Cook today remains the only Native American to ever win the award.

In 2010, he was named by Teach For America to its National Advisory Council on Indian Education to try and further the group’s work and was appointed as the managing director of its Native American Initiative, which had been struggling at the time.

“I joined this movement to ensure that there would never again be times when our students start the school year without great teachers,” Cook said in a statement.

Teach For America, which began bringing teachers to underprivileged students in both rural and urban schools in 1990, has been heralded by educational professionals for the work it has done in schools across the country. The program recruits recent college graduates and young professionals from all fields of study and enlists them for two years as teachers, and then places them in communities where there is a shortage of teachers.

In addition to recruiting these young professionals, the organization also trains and prepares its teachers with the skills needed to close the achievement gap that exists between poor communities and the rest of America. According to Teach For America’s website,, the organization now has over 33,000 trained professionals working at all levels of the educational spectrum.

Currently, Teach For America has 400 corps members working in Indian country where they serve over 15,000 Native American students with the hopes of expanding their numbers to 1,500 members serving 52,000 students by the year 2015.

Not only will the program bring more teachers to Native communities, but it will also bring people who have backgrounds similar to the students they will be teaching.

“We will also focus on recruiting more American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian corps members, and by 2015 we will be one of the top national recruiters of Native leaders into the education field,” Cook states on Teach For America’s website.

“Our goal is to start building a pipeline of teachers who can give our young people leadership opportunities and who can help inspire our kids to go in to higher education,” he adds.

The organization has recently made efforts to increase their presence in rural America, where it is often extremely difficult to recruit and retain quality teachers. In order to address this issue Cook has increased efforts to recruit teachers from schools in the region in order to bring homegrown talent to the rural communities that need it in South Dakota.

“We are trying now to bring in teachers from schools like Black Hill State, South Dakota School of Mines and also our tribal colleges,” Cook told Native Sun News. “It is important to have teachers come from this area, because they are the ones who are likely to stay on and continue a career in the area.”

More information about Teach for America can be found online at

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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