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America's first students get a second look

US schools strive to close the learning gap for native American students - who often struggle to straddle two worlds.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 2005


On a snowy December night, nine teenage girls sit shoulder to shoulder around the kitchenette table, telling stories. Not dorm gossip, mind you, but stories that have been passed down for generations in their native cultures.

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One reads a favorite Navajo picture book in English - a modern twist on an oral tradition. When she comes to a part that should be sung in Navajo, she hesitates, then passes it to a friend who remembers - mostly - how to sing it. The singer wears a black T-shirt with white lettering: "You laugh because I'm different. I laugh because you're all the same."

That edgy pride can be an important form of protection. When they leave their dorm, where everyone is Indian, they are "minorities" here in Flagstaff, Ariz., still battling prejudices - both silent and spoken.

Many of the students drive hours from remote reservation towns to live at the Kinlani Bordertown Dormitory and attend nearby Flagstaff High School. For some, the quest for more-challenging coursework and better extracurricular choices will lead to college - and to becoming the most educated person in their family.

But for others, the transition is just too hard, despite special activities - like the storytelling session - designed to teach or reaffirm the value of their traditional culture. For a whole host of reasons, nearly half who come in as freshmen don't make it to senior year here, and much of that loss happens by sophomore year. Some transfer back home, while others drop out of high school altogether.

Each student has his or her own story. But taken collectively, Indian education seems a story of extremes: Those who do well academically are symbols of great progress made by educators and tribes - but they stand out because of the chronic barriers that still hold so many back.

"There's a systematic problem with the education of Indian children, [and that] leads to high dropout rates, substance abuse, and especially high rates of suicide," says Cindy La Marr, who recently finished a term as president of the National Indian Education Association in Alexandria, Va. "Something's wrong when those factors enter into a child's education. Their self-esteem is at issue."

One out of 6 American Indian youths has attempted suicide, according to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. That group also reports that 25 percent of native Americans live below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent overall in the US. And the teen birth rate is 50 percent higher than for non-Indians.

The sense of urgency is building in many American Indian communities as they look at how students are faring in today's high-stakes environment. Although high school graduation rates are difficult to pin down, a 2003 study by the Manhattan Institute found that a national average of 54 percent of Indian students graduate high school (not including GED recipients). That's roughly on par with Hispanics and African-Americans, but significantly behind whites (72 percent) and Asians (79 percent).

Test scores in reading and math paint another part of the picture. The 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that Indian students' scores are considerably lower than those of their white counterparts. In fourth-grade math, for instance 20 percent of American Indians and Alaskan natives scored at or above proficiency, compared with 44 percent of whites. The gaps in reading are similar for fourth- and eighth-graders, though they tend to outpace African-American students.

Efforts to eliminate the achievement gap and nurture Indian youths are on the rise, ranging from teacher training to family-literacy programs, attendance incentives to curriculums that incorporate native language, history, and culture.

How much funding is enough?

American Indians are a diverse population, with 562 federally recognized tribes and 4.4 million people identifying as native, at least in part, according to the US Census. So progress in education partly depends on the priority that different tribal nations place on it, and whether they have resources to fund programs and college scholarships, La Marr says.