Across Indian Country, students' English skills trail peers
Associated Press

By JOHN MILLER - Associated Press Writer

FORT HALL, Idaho - One of Michele Hernandez's earliest memories from 1960s southern Idaho is calling across the playground to a kindergarten classmate.

Suddenly, a teacher pulled her inside the schoolhouse by the arm and washed her mouth out with soap.

The punishment wasn't for profanity.

It was for speaking Shoshone, her grandmother's language.

"I was living in two worlds," said Hernandez, now a tutor at IT Stoddard Elementary in Blackfoot. "You always had to keep a look out for the other side, depending on who was looking."

Her job today: She helps teach English to American Indian youngsters classified by Idaho as "Limited English Proficient," or LEP.

While students are no longer punished for speaking their native tongues, English in Indian Country remains sensitive, because Native American students continue to trail white peers in language skills, records from several states show.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools with large Indian populations, could eventually be forced to take radical steps if the achievement gap doesn't narrow, including transporting students to higher-performing schools or painful re-organizations.

"It certainly has directed attention to the problem, which has existed for a long, long time," said Jon Reyhner, a professor at Northern Arizona University and Indian literacy expert. "Indian kids come in to school behind, in terms of vocabulary."

According to a 2005 Mississippi State University report, rural American Indian and Alaska Native children were the least likely of major ethnic sub-groups in rural America to be proficient at letter recognition upon kindergarten entry.

State education records from Idaho, Montana and nearby North Dakota show Native American children trail virtually every other category of students in meeting No Child Left Behind targets.

For instance, among North Dakota 8th graders, just 39.9 percent of Indians were reading at grade level, compared with 75 percent of white students, according to 2003-2004 figures.

In Montana, 22 percent of students at the Crow Agency public school on the Crow Indian Reservation read at grade level. Across the state, Native Americans from 17 different Indian language backgrounds account for 11 percent of the public school population  and 90 percent of its 6,952 LEP tudents.

"The average Indian child starts school with a vocabulary of about 3,000 words," said Joe Lamson, a spokesman for the Montana Office of Public Instruction in Helena. "The average white student starts with a
vocabulary of 15,000."

Children raised in Indian country may also learn a different dialect of English, one that includes native words. Chris Loether, an anthropology professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello, said many Fort Hall-area residents speak what they call "Red English."

"They've got this dialect, which to them is an identity marker," Loether said. "And it gets stronger as they get older."

There were 592 Indian children in Idaho's $8 million LEP program last year. In public schools in Indian communities, including Fort Hall Elementary and IT Stoddard, are already facing No Child Left Behind sanctions, according to Idaho Department of Education records.

Deep poverty is major reason that Indian children struggle with their English skills, experts say.

At Fort Hall, for instance, reservation unemployment is at 37 percent more than seven times the state average. Montana reservation unemployment averages as much as 70 percent, according to state officials.

"You look at what's available in the home: computers, reading materials, storybooks," said Harold Ott, superintendent of the Lapwai School District, located near the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in north-central Idaho. "For families in poverty, there are fewer of those kinds of opportunities available."

As dimensions of the achievement gap have emerged following No Child Left Behind's passage in 2001, Indian leaders say they have mixed feelings about the education reforms: They're pleased schools must pay attention to the issue, but fear the law may be ill-suited to address educational shortcomings among Native Americans.

At the National Congress of American Indians in Tulsa, Okla., on Oct. 31, tribal leaders condemned the act as a "one-size-fits-all" approach that doesn't address indigenous people's cultural and linguistic traditions.

I don't think the philosophical model of this current legislation is consistent with education programs that work with Native Americans," said Mari Rasmussen, head of North Dakota's bilingual and language acquisition.

Still, some Indians are optimistic about a new plan announced last Friday by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to allow up to 10 states to measure not just how students are performing, but how that performance is changing over time.

"Gains have been made by our students, but we were coming from so far behind," said Lillian Sparks, director of the National Indian Education Association in Washington, D.C.

The aim, say Indians who for decades starting in the late 19th century were shipped by the U.S. government to boarding schools to make them more "American," is a system that helps Indians boost their English without sacrificing their native heritage.

In Fort Hall, Michele Hernandez knows the consequences if such a system is missing: Today, she cannot speak Shoshone, the language she was once punished for using on the playground.

Growing up in the 1960s, everybody was supposed to be transformed into being white," Hernadez said. "We had do everything they did, and our language was not the thing that was supposed to be spoken in the school."