Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 2, 2001 - Issue 37



Prep School in New Mexico Combines Academics, Indian View


by Pat O'Brien The Inland Empire Press

A river runs through the 1,600-acre campus of the Native American Preparatory School -- the first school of its kind -- near Santa Fe, N.M. Along the bluffs and arroyos, students study botany, geology and biology firsthand.

But this is no laid-back, alternative school. This is a rigorous academic track with Ivy League goals where American Indian students are expected to read 25 books each year and where many take courses such as AP calculus. The school enhances lessons by incorporating Indian perspective about environment, culture and history into mainstream academics.

"It's identification in a real personal kind of way," said the school's academic dean Diana Roberts Gruendler.

The goal is to prepare students for college and help them follow through. Historically, few Indians earn degrees. Less than 10 percent of the Indian population had attained a bachelor's degree according to the 1990 U.S. Census, the most recent census figures available. Less than half of 1 percent of doctoral degrees awarded nationwide in 1997 went to Indians, according to the American Council on Education.

The 5-year-old preparatory school has managed to place 100 percent of its graduates in colleges.

"The percentage rate of our students who have continued in college in the first institution they were admitted to is 83 percent for the first two graduating classes," Gruendler said. "We are pleased with the persistence rate of 83 percent, which is quite phenomenal and much higher than the Native (American) population across the country."

Gruendler makes this comparison based on a variety of college studies that indicate the dropout rate for Indians is about 50 percent.

At a time when some educators are questioning possible built-in cultural bias in standardized achievement tests, due to minorities not always having the same educational opportunities and experiences as mainstream students, this school helps students compete across cultural boundaries.

"It's one thing to recognize that a test is culturally biased and another not to help students address those issues," said Gruendler. "We don't take issue with standardized tests, because it is a fact of life and our students take them. But we do prepare them."

Graduates Ben Calabaza of Santa Domingo Pueblo and Crystal Salas of Zia Pueblo in New Mexico said the school offered them good dialogue with teachers, taught them how to manage time and study well. And teachers tested them several times in preparation for the SAT.

"The school really prepared us. You could see a score gain each time I took it," Salas said.

Both students chose to attend Whittier College, a liberal arts college in California that is tied for a No. 1 ranking nationally for diversity of its student body. They chose it, in part, for its small class size and individual attention similar to NAPS. But before the freshman year ended, Salas withdrew and went home. Calabaza remains in school.

In its short history, NAPS has had graduates accepted by prestigious universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Cornell. Many of these students come from poor reservations where such an education seems out of reach.

"I thoroughly love this school. I hope it survives forever. It's such an opportunity that we never had," said Kogee Thomas, a Creek/Seminole who has served on the board of directors since the inception of the school.

Thomas has been on a mission for decades to improve Indian education and was part of a group of educators who overhauled the curriculum at Sherman Indian High School in Riverside.

NAPS' curriculum explores the history, government and culture of native tribes, as well as mainstream college-prep material. For instance, students may study the writings of 19th century social observer Alexis de Tocqueville alongside speeches by Indian leaders.

"It's not revisionist history, but it's looking at it in a broader context -- American history would be all of our history, native peoples and immigrants and the confluence of those people coming together," said Gruendler.

The unusual curriculum also addresses the role of myths -- or traditional stories that explain the phenomenon of existence.

"We see myth as a powerful force shaping life, and then finding the right story from the past is essential to living responsibly in the future," said Gruendler, whose father was Cherokee.

Almost all the students are on full scholarships -- monies raised by school officials. They are taught in classes of only eight students, resulting in extraordinary personal attention.

A number of studies have criticized large high schools, now common in the United States, for creating conditions of alienation and other problems plaguing students.

"Size is one of the big issues . . . We are fortunate to be able to provide (small classes)," said Gruendler, who took the job at NAPS after a career in teacher training and curriculum development at the University of Minnesota.

"Much as I loved the university, this is a remarkable opportunity to be in a school that has such a clear mission," she said.

The school began as academic summer programs at schools in Arizona, New Mexico and the University of California, Irvine. It was founded by Richard Prentice Ettinger Jr., whose father established Prentice-Hall Publishing and the Educational Foundation of America. The foundation poured $20 million into acquiring the Santa Fe campus and providing scholarships.

Currently 74 students attend, but it is hoped it will be able to take up to 200.

"We want students to make it in the Western education system," said Sharon Ettinger, who is chairwoman of the school's board of trustees and the widow of Richard. "We give them the tools -- they've got the intelligence -- and set them free."

Native American Prepatory School
The Native American Preparatory School is a student centered program that provides Native American students with a stimulating four-year college preparatory experience stressing character and cultural development through a curriculum encompassing academics, community service, athletics, and the arts.




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