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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

But she also questions whether the federal government is really providing "enough funding for [native students] to receive an equitable education." Schools owned by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, where about 50,000 Indian students attend, have a huge backlog of repairs, she says.

And she criticizes the Bush administration for not increasing the funding for programs under Title VII of the No Child Left Behind act, which serve the more than 500,000 American Indians who attend regular public schools.

The funding levels are defended by Victoria Vasques, director of the Office of Indian Education at the US Department of Education. Many Indian children are served by Title I - funds for schools with a high concentration of low-income kids.

And overall, she says, "Indian opportunities and programs are funded at about $1 billion a year directly and about another $1 billion indirectly."

When Elaine Kasch, supervisor of Indian education for the Flagstaff Unified School District, looks at the big picture, she's hopeful, despite her frustrations about budget constraints. "More native American students are graduating from high school and going on into colleges and postsecondary programs than ever before," says Ms. Kasch, a Navajo who has been bilingual since childhood.

Ms. Kasch finished high school in the early 1960s, when an eighth-grade education was considered doing well, she says. Now, the percent of American Indians age 25 and over with at least a high school diploma has nearly caught up to that of non-Indians (75 percent vs. 80 percent, according to the Harvard Project).

Students who graduate "have many more skills ... certainly in the areas of technology and health and sciences - things that their grandparents would have thought to be counter to their culture," Kasch says. "They have to balance living in two worlds constantly. Some of them make it, some of them, it takes longer, but if they have adults who can mentor them, it helps them create a pathway that's filled with opportunity."

Learning to navigate different worlds

LaShawna Tso has the confident smile of a young woman on that pathway. Born in Ft. Defiance, N.M., a Navajo town near the Arizona-New Mexico border, she came to the Kinlani Dormitory to attend Flagstaff High School.

Now a senior, she says that talk about the high dropout rate has just further motivated her to do well in school: "I want to prove that not all native Americans are like that. Some just may have not experienced anything outside the reservation, [or] problems like alcoholism and drugs."

After school, boys and girls trek up a hill covered with tall Ponderosa pines, heading to the cafeteria or their dorm lounges to hang out, eat snacks, and do chores. Some have sports events or jobs in the afternoon, but by 7 p.m. they're usually back for a two-hour homework period, where tutors are on hand to help.

About 30 percent of the students here go on to college, says the dorm's academic counselor, Verlinda Folgheraiter, who lived here herself in the 1980s. The real concern is getting students through freshman year. "Everything is new - a new home, a new town, new teachers. For most, it's their first time away from home," she says. She requires them to spend an hour at school after classes are over, so they can talk to teachers if they have any trouble with their homework.

LaShawna says she really missed home her first year, but she could turn to an older sister who was also at the dorm. She has friends from different backgrounds, but she sees some subtle prejudices at the high school.

Getting onto sports teams is competitive, and local students have an advantage, she says, because their parents know the coaches. People occasionally make fun of Indian students "for not speaking right, or the way you dress, if you were raised on the reservation. If you say something wrong, people laugh at you." She's glad she knows Navajo, though. "It's the only way I can communicate with my grandfather."

LaShawna's father went to technical school to learn welding, and her mother got partway through high school, but they want their children to go to college. One daughter is already attending Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "My dad talks with us a lot as far as education goes - how far it's going to take us in life, and that it's the only thing that we need to survive," LaShawna says.

Not too far back in history, American education for many Indians was just the opposite: something to be survived.

Public schools: once something to dread

Starting in the late 1800s, Indian children were taken from their families and enrolled in boarding schools. Stripped of their native clothes and hairstyles, they were also prohibited from speaking their own languages.

"The first step to be taken toward civilization, toward teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of continuing their barbarous practices, is to teach them the English language," wrote J.D.C. Atkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the 1880s, according to a scholarly paper requested by the US Department of Education in 2000. It was the 1970s by the time Indian nations won the right to contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to operate these government schools.

The mistrust of schools still runs deep for some families. And that calls for a greater level of outreach by education officials who want families to be allies in improving students' attendance and academic work.

The Arizona Department of Education recently sent a team of former administrators and teachers to the Navajo reservation to examine teacher quality and collaborate with leaders there. "In the past, we had not made that much effort to get out to those isolated schools," says statewide Indian education coordinator Juana Jose in a phone interview.

With a population of more than 300,000 American Indians and 22 tribal nations in Arizona, Ms. Jose has her work cut out for her. In order to graduate, next year's seniors have to pass the AIMS (Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards) in reading, writing, and math. Some schools and tribal leaders are pushing for a delay, concerned that more kids will drop out in response to the pressure. But most, she says, are "getting on the bandwagon, asking 'What can we do to help our students?'"

What schools can do

One key is teacher development. The state received a $7.3 million federal grant to train native teachers, a sort of grow-your-own approach for remote areas, she says. "We don't have enough American-Indian teachers. The schools on the reservations, which are in isolated rural areas, have had to hire people from outside, and not too many people want to live out there where there are no amenities."

Training all teachers to be more aware of their Indian students' backgrounds is another ongoing project. One illustration of how questions stemming from the majority culture can be tricky: A teacher in a small town asked her young Indian students where they would see a boat, and "the children said, 'On the freeway' ... that's the only place they ever see the boats, being pulled to a lake on the freeway," Jose says.

In Flagstaff, where one-quarter of the students are Indian, Kasch and a staff of 10 native American academic advisers hold workshops for teachers. Science teachers, for instance, usually need to come up with alternatives to dissection, because many tribes have clan names associated with animals, and dissection could be considered a form of disrespect.

"Instead of looking at native American students as having deficits," Kasch says, "I tell the new teachers here, 'Recognize that these students bring a rich culture and heritage to the classroom that can be shared with the other students.' " Indian students do as well as or better than other groups in NAEP geography scores, for instance, partly because of a cultural heritage with close ties to the natural landscape.

Early childhood education and family literacy are another emphasis. But the challenges can be daunting. At Blackwater Community School on the Gila River Indian Reservation near Phoenix, about 20 percent of the students are in special education, says principal Jacquelyn Power in a phone interview.

That compares with a national average of about 13 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The higher rates on Indian reservations, she adds, are partly linked to the numbers of children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

English has been the dominant language here for two generations, but many parents are unemployed and don't have a lot of books at home, so children start school with reading deficits, Power says. The school has a program to help parents work on their GEDs. And parent educators pay weekly visits to families and teenage girls with children under 3.

Bringing tradition into the classroom

Blackwater is one of a growing number of schools around the country that are trying to help native students by bringing their heritage into the classroom. A culture specialist introduces words and phrases from the Akimel O'Otham language. It hasn't been turned into a formal written language, so there aren't books to promote it yet. The school also uses traditional dances and invites elders to give blessings on special occasions.

At Flagstaff High School, very little content in the regular classroom touches on Indian history and culture, says Josie Begay-James, the school's native American academic adviser. In the American history textbook, she says, about 24 pages out of 600 mention indigenous Americans.

One strategy does not fit all when it comes to the 379 students she advises, most of whom are Navajo or Hopi. Two percent have a very traditional background, including some who were raised by their grandparents. A large segment have been raised with a combination of traditional values and a "Euro-American mind-set," she says.

And still another group have had very little exposure to reservations or to traditional knowledge.

Some students need to catch up with basics like computer word-processing, she says. "We're asking them to reach for the stars when they've had a really weak foundation."

Navajo language classes are offered in the district, thanks to efforts by her and other parents back in the early 1990s. And after school she teaches an elective Diné (Navajo) history course. It's part of the requirement - along with a 3.0 GPA - for a $7,000 college scholarship that the Navajo Nation offers, renewable for up to five years.

When students learn more about how the US government historically treated Indian people, Ms. Begay-James helps them cope with the anger it can stir up. Many of them get motivated to go on to study law or political science, she says.

For Aretta Begay (no relation to the counselor), the main adjustment was a social one when she transferred here in her junior year from Red Mesa, a four-hour drive north in the Navajo reservation. She was shy at first. And she noticed that the cultural standards for respect sometimes meant native American students were treated rudely, because they wouldn't talk back. But she found a happy medium. "I saw other people being louder and outgoing, and I thought, 'Huh, maybe I don't have to be shy,' " Aretta explains.

Now a senior, she recently won a full scholarship to attend Fort Lewis College in Colorado. She wants to be a lawyer and a musician, or perhaps she'll get into technology, she muses.

Begay-James wonders about one other piece of the puzzle - whether college graduates in certain fields will be able to return home to work if they want to.

"The whole system is broken. We're educating the kids at a faster rate than the reservation is able to provide jobs for them," she says.

But that's not something Aretta is worrying about just yet. She pulls back the dark curtain at the window in her dorm room, letting in the sunshine.

Her college plans are made, and she can bask for a moment in the glory of having been chosen as student of the month. The career decision can wait.

Next Tuesday, March 29, Part 2: Will the No Child Left Behind law boost native American achievement, or harm efforts to link culture and learning?

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