The school that Lorén built

Native American children lag behind other minorities in academic achievement. One Rhode Island woman wants to change that.

Lorén Spears tries not to be angry, but some of the memories still sting. As a first-grader and the only native American in her public school class in rural Rhode Island, she yearned to blend in. Shy but dutiful, she succeeded at pleasing her teacher, who regularly sent home report cards stamped "Commendable."

It wasn't until June that the teacher mentioned Spears wasn't reading at a first-grade level. Her mother was stunned, but later in life Spears came to understand the omission only too well.

"It was the perfect story of the low expectations white teachers have for native American children," says Spears. "Obedience was the most they expected from me."

Although less often in the headlines than other minority groups, native American students consistently lag behind their white peers when it comes to academic achievement.

According to a 2000 study of high school graduation rates, 57 percent of eligible native Americans received a secondary school diploma that year - a slightly better rate than blacks (55 percent) or Hispanics (53 percent), but significantly worse than whites (76 percent) or Asians (79 percent).

When it comes to college, however, a National Collegiate Athletic Association study shows the native American graduation rate of 37 percent trails that of both blacks, at 40 percent, and Hispanics, at 46 percent.

Failure to hone the skills that make for success in mainstream American life may at least partly account for the high suicide rates among native Americans - a whopping 1.5 times the average of that of other Americans, with native men aged 15-24 most likely to take their own lives.

Fortunately in Spears's case, when she stumbled in school, she had a mother who knew exactly how to react. She quickly found a tutor who turned the situation around, and Spears eventually came to love school and sailed through college.

But her success is not the norm, Spears insists, and that's why she has a sense of urgency about opening a school for native Americans, a school she hopes "will be all about respect."

The Nuweetooun School, set to open in September in Exeter, R.I., is largely about love. No other force could have driven such a small group to undertake so large a project.

A little more than a year ago, Spears was a public elementary school teacher in Newport, R.I. She'd been there for 12 years and enjoyed working at a low-income school where she had a chance to nurture minority students - although most were not native Americans, the group closest to her heart as a Narragansett Indian.

But as her own sons (now ages 9 and 7) entered the public school system in her hometown of Exeter, her heart sank. She saw her older son's initial enthusiasm for school shrivel in the face of a culture and learning climate that kept him feeling like an outsider.

"He entered first grade positively jubilant, with a twinkle in his eyes," she says. "By the end of second grade the twinkle was gone and there was no self-esteem left, either."

Spears recognized in her son's experience some of the same hurts and baffling adjustments she and her native American friends had been subjected to during their school days.

Different style of learning

Native Americans, Spears says, tend to be quiet and reflective. In a more bustling mainstream classroom, native children often feel shy - an attitude some mistake for unfriendliness or lack of cooperation.

American schools tend to stress competition, while native American children are geared toward working as a group, and often feel intimidated by individual ambition.

And worst of all, she recalls, is the overall lack of respect. When she was young, racial slurs were still common and she will never forget how much the insults hurt.

Today, she says, native American children endure a subtler form of humiliation. Their history and customs may be touched on lightly - and often inaccurately - at Thanksgiving time, but they are generally accorded little or no real consideration.

There is, she says, an expectation that native Americans should perhaps let go of their past and focus on assimilating, but, she explains, "that's hard to do when it's in your heart and your life every day."

So Spears began to dream of a school that would meet the needs of native children.

In June 2002 she took a two-year unpaid leave of absence from her teaching job. She and her husband (a stonemason) decided to forsake her income for two years while she home-schooled their sons, cared for their infant daughter, and jumped onto the Internet to see what she could learn about opening a school of her own.

Spears's mother owns land and buildings in Exeter that she leases to the Tomaquag Museum of native American culture. She volunteered to house the fledgling school on the museum property without charging rent.

Spears discovered that, by linking the school to the museum, which had already established itself as a nonprofit entity, she could skip an entire layer of paperwork.

Tasks like reaching compliance with fire codes and providing hot water tended to be, at the very least, expensive and time-consuming.

That's where she leaned on the native American sense of community. Her husband did the roof repair. Friends and neighbors painted, cleaned, and organized. A teacher from a local Baptist church brought inexpensive school supplies. A local charity donated $5,000 for a firebox.

And, through a process that at times has seemed miraculous, the new K-8 private school will be ready to open in September.

Curriculum weaves in culture

Currently there are only seven children enrolled, with four applications pending. One teacher and one teacher's aide have been hired. Eventually, Spears hopes, the school will serve at least 40 children, taught by four teachers.

Annual tuition is $6,000 - "not an outrageous amount for the average American," Spears says. "But natives are not average Americans."

She hopes that eventually more funding will permit the school to offer scholarships and financial aid.

The Nuweetooun School will feature a curriculum that meets state and local academic standards - a need Spears is fully aware of as a veteran public school teacher - but will do so by weaving native American culture throughout the curriculum.

She envisions a science class on earth materials that will segue into a lesson on native American pottery, along with a math class on area and perimeter that will include building a native American fire pit.

She expects that native myths and lore and crafts will be built into lessons throughout the day, along with some basic instruction in the Narragansett language.

Writing will also be a focus. One of the things that Spears has noted from teaching minority students is that they sometimes stumble over writing assignments because they lack the life experiences that allow for a richer composition.

"They need life experience and a sense of place," she says - two needs she hopes can be met through more outdoors education.

There will also be a focus on cooperative learning, learning from elders, and a real emphasis on using the outdoors as a classroom. ("I call this 'environmental science' when I need to spell it out to the general population," she says. "But what I'm talking about is something intrinsic to being native.")

More than a tribal school

One important aspect in which Spears' school will differ from most other schools for native Americans is that her school - despite her own ties to the Narragansett tribe - will not be linked to any particular tribe.

By not setting Nuweetooun up as a tribal school, Spears won't be eligible immediately for funds from the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs. But this has the advantage of allowing her to appeal to a larger pool of applicants.

Because local Indian casinos have drawn native Americans of various tribes to her area, she hopes to be able to create a unique kind of community.

She also hopes that community will include nonnatives.

All the applicants to the school have been native Americans, but Spears's dream - remembering the pain of not fitting in as a child - is an entirely inclusive one: "I'm hoping this school will also appeal to nonnatives looking for something unusual," she says.

Many children, she adds, thrive when learning is experiential and more tightly tied to environment. She has watched her sons' interest in learning revive this year as they have included wildflowers and a nestful of newborn Baltimore orioles in their lessons.

Children like her sons "could survive public school," she says. But the question that drives her efforts is: "Why shouldn't they do more than just survive?"

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