To catch struggling students, tribes turn to charter schools
Associated Press
Dec. 13, 2004
Julia Silverman

MISSION, Ore. - Behind a locked door on the campus of the newly opened Nixyaawii Charter School on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, about a dozen teenagers have gathered for their last class of the day.

There are no teachers in the room, no adults allowed. The charter school's students - slouched low in their seats, baseball caps pulled down, sweatshirt hoods pulled up - are talking about how to behave in school, relearning kindergarten-era lessons long forgotten.

"We have to learn how to govern ourselves," said the group's de-facto leader, 20-year-old Jess Stone. "You guys are leading by example. You have to lead yourself before you lead others."

In Nixyaawii's first few difficult months, this group of students has emerged as a linchpin, helping to hold together a school on which the hopes of a reservation are resting.

Similar charter schools are cropping up throughout Indian Country, in states like California, Arizona and New Mexico. Tribal officials have pinned their hopes on the start-up schools as their best chance to reach a generation of Indian students who've dropped out or drifted through traditional public schools.

Charter schools receive public funding - including, for Nixyaawii, $350,000 in one-time start-up money from the U.S. Department of Education - but are free from many of the rules and restrictions that apply to other public schools.

The idea is to encourage experimentation in education; such schools operate under a "charter" or contract with local school boards or state officials.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which tracks charter schools, counts at least 30 Indian charter schools in the country. Arizona has the most, with 12, followed by California with six; Indian charters have also opened in Minnesota and Michigan.

Not all of the schools have gotten great results; in Arizona, for example, a tribal charter school was recently shut down after authorities there had trouble with federal special education requirements and an audit, said Onnie Shekerjian, who sits on the Arizona State Board for charter schools.

But others have achieved solid results in just a short time. The San Diego-area Barona Indian Charter School, for example, posted big gains in student performance on standardized test scores in the 2003-2004 school year, besting the state average.

More Indian charter schools are in the planning stages in Oregon, Wyoming and in Alaska, where a coalition of Fairbanks-area non-profit groups and local tribes are planning a charter school that could open as soon as 2006.

Besides standard curriculum, the Alaska charter school would offer "hunting, harvesting, building canoes, berry-picking - all different activities to reinforce native culture," said Sharon McConnell Gillis, executive director for the Doyon Foundation, one of the groups working on the Alaska proposal.

In Oregon, a lot's riding on Nixyaawii being a success. The idea for the school had been floating among the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation for more than a decade before the tribe finally made up its mind this year to seek charter status, but after that, things moved quickly.

Principal Annie Tester was brought on board in July and hired her three teachers in August, only a month before the start of school, housed in a community center. All three teachers are teaching some courses outside their credential area.

Things moved so quickly that there wasn't time to buy textbooks or new computers or arrange for hot school lunches to be delivered or start up a hoped-for community mentorship program.

There were skeptics, and whispers that the school had started so fast in order that it could field a basketball team, a hot commodity on a reservation that's crazy for the sport.

Still, 48 students showed up for the first day of class, refugees from area high schools where they had been surrounded by a sea of white faces.

Some come from high poverty families, and have relatives who have battled with alcoholism and drugs, Tester said; others had been tuning school out since junior high, one reason officials are hoping to eventually add seventh and eighth grades to Nixyaawii.

The students came to a school where the emphasis is on Indian culture - students learn traditional beadwork and basketry in art classes, discuss native fables in English and, instead of Spanish or German, are getting instruction in the almost-lost Indian languages spoken by their ancestors.

Teachers are trying to emphasize learning through group projects, rather than the more traditional scenario of a teacher lecturing up front, and students taking notes.

And so far, there have been some real victories.

For one thing, the school's so small that students can't slouch and hide, as they might have been able to do at a traditional public school, said Kristine Patrick, the charter school's English teacher.

Also, in October, Nixyaawii was chosen to receive a small schools grant from the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the $137,000 will pay for teacher training and curriculum development.

And though two key players are ineligible because of grades, the Nixyaawii boy's basketball team beat its first conference rival, by a resounding 63-44.

But for some of the students, old habits have died hard. Teachers say there are too many times when students doze off in class, or leave to get a drink of water and don't come back, or turn in an assignment weeks late.

"We are doing a lot of unlearning before we learn," said Tre Luna, who teaches social studies at Nixyaawii, his first full-time job.

Even some students say classroom behavior is still a work-in-progress.

"A lot of these students take kindness for weakness," said Eddie Simpson, an 18-year-old born on the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho reservation who bounced from school to school before landing at Nixyaawii. "It pisses me off - our teacher is just trying to teach, and they are talking while she is talking.
She never did anything to disrespect them."

Simpson said he's determined to get his remaining high school credits and graduate, and then plans to search out scholarship money to attend community college and train to be an EMT. He said he sees Nixwaayii as his last, best chance.

"If I don't do this, what's there for me?" Simpson asked.

The classroom troubles were one reason Stone and the other students formed their leadership club - knowing, Stone said, that Nixwaayii's future turns on its students.

"For these teachers, it is their first time teaching at a native school, and for these students, it is their first time at a native school," said Stone, who wants someday to become a tribal politician. "The respect level was affected and there were clashes. We are seeking to reverse that."

Tester and others said Nixyaawii's first year is really a work-in-progress, a chance to establish a baseline from which to build. After this year, she said, staff will be able to know where their students stand, and where they need to improve.

At the start and end of each day, students and teachers gather in a circle for announcements and to talk about the day ahead or the day gone by.

There's a perceptible, calm weariness among students and teachers at the end-of-day gathering.

"Even with the chaos today, it was a good day," teacher Luna told the students. "To those of you who had patience and stuck it out, thank you."