Catching up without letting go

What spells "success" for native American students? Certainly one answer would be improvement in their reading and math scores, which lag significantly behind those of their white peers. But many educators also seek to give native students a solid grounding in their unique cultural traditions and history. And some worry that this is a goal that will lose out as an unintended consequence of the 2001 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.

Native Americans fought hard to regain a say over their own education in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s. But now that school staff members need higher-education credentials, what will happen to native-language classes taught by community elders? If schools are sanctioned for not meeting attendance goals, but not offered funding to cut down on truancy, how will they avoid coming under state control?

"Whoever designed [NCLB] wasn't thinking anything about the history of Indian education," says one of the law's critics, Denis Viri, a research associate at Arizona State University's Center for Indian Education. "We feel an effective education is one that's defined primarily by the goals of the community. But [education in the US] is still a strongly assimilative system ... and in my opinion, No Child Left Behind is just another one of those roadblocks."

The history is complex, but perhaps the most relevant chapter started in the 1880s, when Indian children were forced into boarding schools and punished if caught speaking their native languages. The early 1900s saw an easing of such policies, but after World War II, when Navajo code talkers helped defend against the Japanese, policies slid back toward English instruction.

A series of reports on the low quality of education for Indian students was finally followed up by new laws, including the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

State by state, curricula are slowly starting to include more native American history. In addition, about three dozen schools in the US use an indigenous language for all instruction.

Many of those schools are private, but some public schools primarily serving Indian students - including about 30 charters - have been weaving in native approaches to learning.

One example is Fort Hall Elementary school on the Shoshone-Bannock Indian Reservation in Idaho. As the school made more connections with families and introduced native culture and language, attendance increased from 68 percent to 97 percent, the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory reports.

In Washington State, young Indian students are devouring a series of stories that were written to reflect native culture. The education department created the curriculum in partnership with tribal elders and authors, and is distributing lesson plans through a CD-ROM, complete with video clips of tribe members teaching everything from the significance of the canoe to traditional songs and drumming.

"It's telling the true story of who we are, not what you see in John Wayne movies," says Denny Hurtado, a member of the Skokomish tribe and Washington's program supervisor for Indian education. "The elders told us they wished this stuff was here when they went to school." In recent years, he says, Indian students have made more gains in reading than other groups, and teachers tell him this curriculum is part of the reason.

Not everyone believes that infusing schools with native culture is necessary for success.

Ben Chavis took over as principal of American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif., four years ago, when it was on the verge of failure. The school attracts many native Americans, but also includes a typical urban racial blend.

"No Child Left Behind is the greatest educational reform that we've ever had in America, because we hold people accountable," says Mr. Chavis, himself a native American. "That's what I do. I'm into reading and writing and math and science and history. Blacks, Mexicans, Indians, and poor whites don't need more culture - they need some academics to get into Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford."

Chavis discontinued a morning drum circle, where children and staff would discuss their feelings, he says. That made room for a daily block of intensive language-arts instruction. He also uses creative methods to ensure high attendance - including showing up at absent students' homes, and giving cash bonuses to teachers and students with perfect attendance.

Last year, theirs was the only Oakland school for middle or high school grades to score above 800 on California's 1,000-point Academic Performance Index. By hiring good teachers (and paying them more than he pays himself), Chavis says he's given students what they need to earn good grades. "We've made it popular among Indians to be smart," he says.

Most proponents of culturally based education don't argue against the need to improve English and other skills measured by standardized tests. Rather, they point to research that suggests there's a link between these goals.

A new study of language-immersion and culture programs in Hawaii, Montana, Alaska, and Arizona is being developed by William Demmert, a longtime scholar of native American education and a professor at Western Washington University. "Our hypothesis is that students who learn more than one language are enhanced intellectually and cognitively, and by the time they reach 12th grade, they will do as well or better than [single-language] students," says Mr. Demmert, also one of the authors of the 1991 report of the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force.

About 80 percent of the achievement gap between minorities and whites is thought to be tied to poverty, Demmert says. He hopes that for native Americans, much if not all of the other 20 percent can be eliminated through the language and culture approach. "It deals with self-image and identity and motivation, and [gives] a sense of historical perspective that is important for colonized people to know and recognize."

Native Americans are more likely to attend schools that are subject to sanctions under NCLB, says Gail Sunderman, principal investigator for a study by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. "There's not a lot of basis in research that those sanctions will improve things."

Students are supposed to be able to transfer out of schools that aren't doing well enough, for instance, but in many Indian areas there are no nearby alternatives. Other schools have to start special tutoring programs, even if the problem is absences rather than test scores.

The Blackwater Community School on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona didn't make adequate progress last year because it fell short of the state attendance requirement of 94 percent. The small school had a 92 percent rate, and "that's high for Indian country," says principal Jacquelyn Power.

Blackwater also draws teachers' aides and other staff from the community, but new regulations require more education for the staff. "We don't disagree ... but it's just making it difficult to recruit from the local population," she says.

That, in turn, can make it difficult for schools to fulfill a community-based mission. "The whole issue of who controls education is a huge one, not just for native Americans," Sunderman says. "The federal government is really taking a lot of control in this."

But Victoria Vasques is confident that schools can comply with NCLB without threatening native Americans' self-determination. As director of the Office of Indian Education at the US Department of Education, she says she's more proud now than she's ever been in her three-decade career.

Students who once would be left out when schools reported test scores, or shunted off into classes with lower standards, are now getting intensive help, she says. "I saw first-hand growing up, Indian kids who didn't have a true disability [were placed in special ed]. They were just slower, or they had a language issue, or they didn't have someone to read to them [at home].... I can tell you, you see a difference now."

Ms. Vasques has been meeting with tribal representatives and Indian education organizations, and they will all be part of a national conference on NCLB April 6-7 in New Mexico. That's one step outlined in Executive Order 13336, signed last spring by President Bush. It sets up a working group to "assist American Indian and Alaska Native students in meeting the challenging student academic standards ... in a manner that is consistent with tribal traditions, languages, and cultures."

"We recognize that we have challenges in Indian country and in rural communities," Vasques says. "We recognize that there are language-immersion programs that have been proven to work. So it's key that we all work together to ... start making sure that we're closing the achievement gap for our Indian kids."

Part 1 of this series ran on March 22.

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