April 23, 2014

The powerless Indian educator

Thirty years ago I wrote about the powerless Indian college professor. They (we) were overworked, underpaid, on too many committees, and outside the real power structure of higher education. Most of the decisions affecting us were made by non-Indians with little knowledge of Indian people.
For the past 25 years I have worked mostly with elementary schools and high schools in Indian Country. I try to make sure the Indian students they are educating are fully ready for college. It is a frustrating job. I would guess that fewer than 2 percent of Indian high school grads are really ready for college. The schools, after all, are blue collar institutions. Most of the staff do not think they are there to get Indian kids ready for college.
And who is caught up in this mess? It is most Indian educators. When I was on the NIEA board 25 years ago, I learned that only about 25 percent of Indian educators are on the teaching faculty of a college or public school. Only a handful of Indians are school superintendents. Probably the total is under 200 for the 1,800 Indian schools. And only a few more are principals—maybe another 200 or fewer.
Thus we have no power in the schools. This hit me recently when I did three workshops at the University of Central Oklahoma, and most of the people who attended were parents, students and Indian education staff.
It was apparent to me that we are still gofers. We go for this and go for that. We take kids home when they are sick. We go to the student’s home to get papers signed. We take kids to doctor and dentist appointments.
Sometimes we are forbidden to do certain things. A young Navajo woman was working in the Gallup schools 25 years ago as a tutor. She was concerned her kids were not performing up to par, so she started visiting them at home after school to help them. When the principal found out he told her she had to stop “fraternizing” and made it clear it was against the rules.
At the same time, the dropout rate for the district for Indian kids was 65 percent. When I stated that in a letter to the state superintendent, the assistant superintendent called me in and read me the riot act. It did not matter that it was true. He just did not want me or anyone else saying it.
Indian educators cannot stop the inertia of the schools. They are directed toward producing welders, truck drivers, secretaries, carpenters and other blue collar workers.
This is just what Gen. Pratt designed for Carlisle in 1878. All the Indian schools are doing what he said they should do. Out of 740 Indian high schools, only about 10 have a college-prep program. Advance Placement classes are almost unknown.
Too many Indian children are placed in Special Education. It still blows my mind that Secretary of Education Dr. Lauro Cavazos, documented in 1989 that 45 percent of Indian kids are in Special Education.
This marks them for life. When they are 50 years old, they still have that stamp on their back. It greatly limits their prospects in life. Almost none of the Special Ed kids go to college.
Parents need to protest this placement. What these kids are lacking are language skills. They are not dummies and they are not slow. The schools do not challenge them. Most non-Indians in the schools think Indian kids are dumb. But when they have a chance to show their stuff, they outperform other students. My staff and I have identified 39 Exemplary Programs in Indian Education in the schools. It is so sad that most of the school people are still in a box made 100 years ago, which does not fit today.
Indian students still face racist treatment. Winner Schools in South Dakota has been documented to kick Indian kids out as young as 13 years old. The school is do bad that the Education Department had to put it on warning.
The Frontier School at Red Rock, Okla., had its own jail when I helped the tribal education committee write a lawsuit in 1994. They were making the Indian kids ride in the back of the school bus. The counselor told the Indian valedictorian that year that he did not need Algebra II, Geometry or Trig. He left school thinking he had a good education. But he almost flunked out of college the next year.
I met with a group of friends at NIEA recently. They are all Indian education people. They asked me how they could turn their schools around. I said, “You have got to get the principals involved.” They groaned. “That’s impossible,” they said. “The principals are the biggest part of the problem.”
I tried to let them down gently. They want to develop an EPIE, but it is next to impossible to do it without real power. In our 21 years of operating the EPIE program, only two programs became exemplary.
It is really sad that Indian educators are mainly on the outside looking in. Social problems in Indian Country have gotten worse during my lifetime. Some of my contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s were glue sniffers and a few became alcoholics.
But the number of single parents, gang members, drug users and pregnant teenagers in Indian Country is now exploding.
We need the schools to help fix these problems by giving Indian kids a challenge. Instead they are shunting kids off to the side.
Counselors do not help Indian kids. There, I said it. Counselors need to help Indian kids find scholarships, apply to colleges, discover what interests them, and plan their courses of study. Counselors rarely help in this process, I am constantly told. It may not be their fault. After all, the principal is god, and they have to do what he (sic) says. Or they won’t have a job.
I sent e-mails earlier this year to all the counselors I have an e-mail address for. That was almost 200 people.
So far I have heard back from five of them. I wanted them to help me give Indian kids scholarships. You think they would be interested.
Don’t get me started. At least Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico is pushing for improvements in the schools. He had a meeting this month in which he said we have to do better. I wonder how many other governors have done anything like that. We need all the help we can get to improve our schools.

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