Arizona antidote to Indian dropout rates

Tucson charter school mixes a classic curriculum with native American

A year ago, Harrison Preston was skipping high school, failing classes, and feeling as though he and his teachers weren't connecting.

He was one of the few American Indians on campus and very near to following a path taken by one-quarter of all native American students: dropping out.

Today, he's a member of the inaugural class at a charter school here that focuses on educating teens from a nearby tribe. "I'm finally learning my language," says Harrison, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, a tribe that stretches across southern Arizona into northern Mexico. "It feels real good to be here."

The Ha:Sa (HAH-shun) Preparatory and Leadership School is one of a growing number of schools around the US aimed at solving the persistent problem of low academic achievement for native Americans. Indeed, the dropout rate among American Indians is the highest among all racial and ethnic groups.

These schools' antidote is one part classic curriculum and one part tribal tradition, closely integrating the two so that math and English are learned alongside ancient songs and native languages.

So far, the results have been been encouraging - one official says students are dropping out at lower rates than at the old reservation schools. And many educational analysts say this "bicultural curriculum" is a vital part of keeping students interested and engaged.

"The teaching of native cultures is one of the most important and one of the most significant areas of Indian education that has, unfortunately, been given low priority," Carol Lujan, special assistant to the secretary of Indian affairs at the US Department of the Interior, said recently. "We need to begin to incorporate the culture within the classrooms."

Native American education got its start more than a century ago through the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. But it was vastly different from the kind of education currently taught at 13 small schools nationwide where the student body is more than two-thirds native American. Back then, children were taken from their communities, forced to cut their hair, and punished when they spoke their native language.

Today, American Indians who don't go to special schools are faced with different challenges. Those living in cities are likely to go to public schools where their cultural heritage is rarely dealt with, if at all. Those on reservations may attend schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but the vast majority of teachers are not Indian.

For many students, schools like Ha:Sa fill an important niche. Here, the only foreign language offered is Tohono O'odham. A tribal elder is the adviser for a botany class where learning planting songs is part of the coursework. And restoring a Hohokam pit house was a project for the service learning class.

Through classes like these, Ha:Sa and other similar schools have provided for native Americans a relevance in educational programs that many traditional public schools have lacked.

"If [the curriculum] never mentions who you are and where you come from ... kids will make the connection that this isn't important," says Robin Butterfield, Indian education coordinator for the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon.

That has a dual effect, she says: Children feel alienated, don't value the lessons they're being taught, and thus are less likely to succeed.

Also, most teachers don't know how to integrate native American culture into their lessons, adds Ms. Butterfield. "Often teachers who are making any mention of Indian people at all do it in a real stereotypical way," she says.

Her office has created a "leadership academy" for native American students. Two days a month, the students are pulled out of their regular classes for special lessons with content related to their history and culture.

"It's a time that the kids are seeing as their opportunity to sort of focus on what does it mean to be Indian," she says.

For Ha:Sa's Harrison, learning basket weaving has helped him better understand his past - and where he fits into it. "For me, I'm holding on to that part of my culture," he says. Before Ha:Sa, "I was separated from everybody," he adds. "Now everything is OK."

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