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Duluth preschool hopes to break down cultural barriers

Duluth Public Schools is bringing back its bicultural preschool program next fall, which was discontinued in the early 2000s due to lack of funding.

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Brenda Goldfine stands outside of Lowell Elementary School in Duluth Friday afternoon, April 2, 2021. Goldfine will be the lead teacher of the bicultural preschool when it starts in the fall. The preschool, Oshki-Inwawin, will not only be a feeder into the Ojibwe immersion program at Lowell, but a way to bridge the cultural divide between American Indian students and others and break down cultural bias. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
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Starting children off right as early as possible in school can help them succeed throughout their educational careers. That is the mission of a new preschool at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth.

Duluth Public Schools is bringing back its bicultural preschool program next fall, which was discontinued in the early 2000s when budget cuts led to a lack of funding. Dubbed Oshki-Inwewin, it will be a full-day preschool, operating four days a week.

American Indian Education Coordinator Edye Washington said the idea came from a conversation with Sherry Williams, who is the administrator for the district's preschool and Head Start programs. They were brainstorming ideas before the pandemic when they began talking about bringing the bicultural preschool program back, but with more of a focus on language, Washington said.

“Sherry said it would fit perfectly because they already had an Ojibwe preschool teacher at Lowell, which was Brenda,” Washington said.

Brenda LeGarde Goldfine said she’s been waiting for this opportunity for decades.

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“I got hired in the summer of 1998 and when I was going through my new teacher orientation at the end of August this job posting came up for the bicultural preschool and I was so excited,” said Goldfine, whose background is Ojibwe heritage. “So I applied but I didn’t get it.”

She said the position went to a senior teacher, then the program closed.

“That feels like a lifetime ago now, so I’ve been waiting for this to happen again for a really long time,” Goldfine said.

Though Oshki-Inwewin, loosely translated means she or he newly making sounds, is open to any family interested, the idea behind the preschool is to also give American Indian students a sense of community at school and give them a good first start in learning, Washington said.

“I’m always looking way down the line for the kids in my care and I think about, are they going to graduate from high school or what their life is going to look like,” Goldfine said. “If we can influence that at this level by getting a good start to school, making it a positive experience and having a real community around these little ones, I just think of how far that can carry them.”

The four-year graduation rate for American Indian students has been one of the lowest of any racial group in Duluth Public Schools, hovering around 45%-55%. While there is hope this program will help American Indian students, there is also hope it will help break down racial barriers.

“This is an opportunity for us to share who we are as Ojibwe people as well as hopefully break down some of those biases and misconceptions by having all students participate in our program and develop a sense of love for another language,” Washington said.

Enrollment for Oshki-Inwewin is open now and families can apply for the preschool by visiting isd709.org/preschool .

Adelle Whitefoot covers K-12 education in northeast Minnesota for the Duluth News Tribune. She has been covering education in Minnesota since 2014.
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