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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 6, 2001 - Issue 46


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Charter School Opens on Reservation


 by Michael Buchanan Staff Writer North County Times-September 23, 2001

RINCON INDIAN RESERVATION ---- Justin Blackowl sat with his classmates inside a dark room Wednesday at the new All Tribes American Indian Charter School. The classroom was dark because the school had no electricity.

School officials had hoped to have electricity by later that day, but at the end of the school week they were waiting for the power to be installed. But the lack of lights has not stopped Blackowl and his classmates from learning, the students said.

Organizers set up the school with a limited budget. The campus on Valley Center Road consists of five trailers on a 4-acre parcel that the school leases from a private owner.

Blackowl is one of roughly 22 students enrolled at the campus, which opened on the Rincon reservation on Sept. 10. The school is open to all students but is designed to help curb drop-out rates among American Indians.

Despite the meager facilities, Blackowl and his classmates seemed upbeat about their new school. They worked in small groups studying language arts, agriculture and other subjects. During their lunch break, students kicked a soccer ball around a dirt parking lot.

"You feel like it's a camp," Blackowl, 13, said.

But organizers are quick to point out to students that they are there to learn. The school's philosophy is, "If students don't learn the way we teach them, we must teach the way they learn" ---- which stems from the staff members' belief that most public schools don't understand how to teach American Indians.

Mary Ann Donohue, the school's principal and co-founder, said she became interested in helping American Indian students while writing a term paper for her teaching credential in 1994. The paper was on dropout rates.

Her research, which she gathered while visiting homes on various Indian reservations, determined that as many as 90 percent of students in some areas never graduated high school. Rincon had one of the highest percentages.

According to the California Department of Education Web site, the dropout rate for American Indians enrolled in San Diego County schools during the 1999-00 school year was 2.5 percent. The data is the most recent available.

But Donohue said the state data doesn't include students who were expelled or were transferred to continuation schools and other alternative campuses where they often slip through the cracks.

"If you looked at the CDE's Web site, you wouldn't think there was a problem," Donohue said. "I talked to families that had six kids but only one graduate. That's more the standard out here."

The state relies on individual school district to collect their dropout data, said Donna Rothenbaum, a consultant for the California Department of Education. She said the current system does lose track of a lot of students.

"We look forward to the day where we'll have a student-level system in place," Rothenbaum said. "Right now, you can't get a grasp on what's happening to kids."

Rothenbaum said she was not familiar with the charter school but she supports the concept.

"The more we can do to keep these kids in school and get them motivated, the brighter their future," she said.

To create the charter school, Donohue hooked up with Michelle Parada, a teacher who grew up on the Rincon reservation. The women developed a curriculum grounded in California's academic standards but with American Indian culture mixed in. For example, students study math, science and other required subjects but also learn the planting methods used by their ancestors and how to speak the Luiseno language.

Charter schools are public schools. They receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional schools but are exempt from many of the laws that govern how instruction is delivered in the classroom. Donohue said her group opened the school with a $250,000 state loan and the school is actively raising money for a permanent campus through private and corporate donations.

The school has attracted teachers who said they want to help American Indian students. Donna Krager, who teaches history and social studies, said she left a teaching position in San Diego Unified School District because she "saw a need" at the charter school. And she took a pay cut to do it.

"I gave up a lot, but it's worth it," Krager said. "There's more to life than money."

Teacher Lauren Rafael said there are cultural differences among American Indians that are evident in the classroom. For example, those students tend to learn by watching and prefer to be active. She added that public school districts rarely cater to their learning styles, but the charter school does.

"They haven't done well in a traditional setting," Rafael said. "Now's our chance to show the world how bright they are."

Karen Jobe, curriculum director for the Valley Center/Pauma Unified School District, said she agrees that there is a need for the school. While the recently unified district has only had a high school for a year, she heard that many students who left the district in eighth grade never graduated.

"You would go to a graduation at Orange Glen High School and you didn't see the students you taught in the eighth grade," Jobe said. "If they can motivate the students, we're right behind them."

Local reaction to the school has been mixed. John Currier, tribal chairman, said anytime something new comes to the reservation it's "a touchy subject," and some have voiced concerns about the safety of having a school next to a busy highway and near a market that sells alcohol. School officials responded that students are kept on campus during school hours.

On the flip side, Currier said having a school on the reservation will make it easier for students to attend. Students are also likely to get more one-on-one time with their teachers, he said. But only time will tell whether the students will become more successful, he added.

"It's new and we're certainly hoping it will be a positive thing for students who attend," Currier said. "I think the important thing is that they have an option now."

   Maps by Travel

Luiseno Language
Luiseño people live on the La Jolla, Pala, Pechanga, Pauma, Rincon, Soboba, and Twentynine Palms reservations. They are also called the Luiseño Band of Mission Indians

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