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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 10, 2002 - Issue 67


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Native's Making the Grade

Wisconsin's first public school was opened in 1828 by a Stockbridge-Munsee Indian named Electa Quinney, who brought the New England concept of a free school with her when the government moved her Mohican tribe from New York to Wisconsin.

Quinney taught in a one-room school in Kaukauna where Indian and white students, most of them poor, could learn together. It was a strong start, but two centuries later, Wisconsin's 12,311 American Indian students lag behind their white classmates by nearly every measure:

Just 73 percent of Indian ninth-graders graduate four years later, compared with 94 percent of white students.

More than 16 percent of Indian high school students will be held back a grade, compared with less than 5 percent of white students.

The cumulative grade point average of Indian students in the Madison schools is 1.92, about a C-, compared to 2.88 or about a B-, for white students.

Educators say that Indian students face similar obstacles as other ethnic minorities, including poverty and parents who are less likely to have graduated high school themselves.

A list released in July showed all three Menominee Indian School District schools on a list of "failing schools" where children score below the state average on test scores and face potential federal sanctions. More than 80 percent of the schools on that list were located in Milwaukee. Likewise, new census numbers show that the Menominee reservation has problems in common with the inner city: About a third of families live below the poverty level and 27 percent of adults aged 25 and older don't have high school degrees.

Menominee school superintendent John Rothlisberg said 80 percent of elementary school children in his district qualify for the Title I program that offers aid to low-income children.

"We do a lot of good things here," said Rothlisberg, whose district has been praised by the state superintendent for a new discipline program that has cut truancy and misbehavior. "The community knows we have issues, and were not denying them."

Complicating matters, Indian students tend to be more mobile than their white peers, changing schools frequently as their families move, or as the students move in with members of their extended families. They also face cultural conflicts with education - the boarding school era soured many elders on education, and battles over demeaning Indian mascots and teaching native history can make schools seem hostile.

Succeeding despite odds David Beaulieu, a White Earth (Minn.) Chippewa who holds the Electa Quinney endowed chair in Indian educational policy at UW-Milwaukee, said that schools, parents and the tribes themselves can do more to help Indian students succeed. But he said we shouldn't overlook the thousands of students who succeed despite the odds.

"We've begun to say to ourselves, 'Maybe Indians are getting educated despite the education system,'" said Beaulieu, who was head of education for the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Clinton.

"Indians are like salmon. They keep trying to swim upstream to get an education, and if they meet an obstacle, they swim around it."

Take, for example, Jamie Goodbear. The 18-year-old Ho-Chunk has lived in school districts across Minnesota and Wisconsin - a tour that included Houston, La Crescent, Cloquet and Duluth in Minnesota and Oneida, Barron, Rice Lake and Turtle Lake in Wisconsin before he settled in the Ho-Chunk homeland of Black River Falls. There he attended high school and played football for two years, before dropping out when his dad, a Vietnam veteran, lost his job.

"I dropped out last year to go home and help pay the bills," said Goodbear, who earned as much as $37 an hour "pulping" or skidding logs out of the forest.

But Goodbear didn't stay among the dropouts. He returned to Black River Falls High School last fall, took a full load of classes, plus night classes at the local technical college, and continued working on nights and weekends.

"He finished up really strong," said Nehomah Thundercloud, a Ho-Chunk who serves as the school districts Native American student specialist. "He ended up with close to a 3.0 GPA (a B average). His teachers were very impressed."

Goodbear is taking a final class this summer and should have his high school degree when he follows his father, Bill, into the Marines in September.

"He didn't want me to join up, but I want to earn as many medals as he did," said Goodbear, who assisted his father at the Ho-Chunk Veterans Pow Wow on Memorial Day.

Beaulieu said that Goodbear's story is typical, in that many Indians who leave school eventually find their way back. The average new Indian college student, he said, is a woman in her 30s who has children.

Helping students
But there are ways to prevent Indian students from leaving school in the first place, Indian educators say.

Schools could be more welcoming to Indian students. After complaints by Ho-Chunk parents, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights audited the Black River Falls district, where Goodbear attended school. While not faulting the districts discipline of Ho-Chunk students, who make up 20 percent of the student body, the OCR report said that school staff need more training in cultural diversity and preventing harassment of Indian students.

Black River Falls Superintendent Dennis Richards said the district now has stronger relations with the tribe.

"With the help of the Ho-Chunk Nation, were partnering on a lot of things, and there's no reason our students shouldn't continue to make progress," he said. For example, Ho-Chunk tutors now come into the schools, rather than meet with students at Ho-Chunk headquarters. He said communication between the schools and tribe is better.

"I really do believe that's one of the strong points, that the communication lines have really been strengthened," he said. "In the past, they (the tribe) had their programs and we had our programs."

The image of Indians presented in schools needs strengthening.
Barbara Blackdeer-Mackenzie, who took office in April as the first Ho-Chunk elected to the Black River Falls school board, said all Wisconsin schools need to do a better job of teaching the place of Wisconsin's first citizens in our history and modern life.

"I think there are misunderstandings between our communities that could be eliminated if there was better communication and education," she said. "It needs to become part of the innate level of understanding what it means to be a tribal member."

Following violence over Indian spear fishing a decade ago, Wisconsin passed Act 31, a law requiring that schools teach about Wisconsin Indian history and treaty rights. But a 2000 survey of Wisconsin principals found that while schools are complying with the letter of the act, fewer than half the principals felt their schools had a strong curriculum for teaching about Indians.

Beaulieu, of UW-Milwaukee, agreed, saying that eliminating racist Indian mascots and improving history and cultural offerings are crucial to getting Indian children to believe that education holds something for them.

"If everywhere you go, people are telling you what you are and its not complimentary, and if you don't see anyone that relates to you, or looks like you, and there's nothing about your community's history, you're invisible," Beaulieu said.

Ultimately, he said, making students excited about learning is what keeps them in school.

Parents and families must support education.
Some parents and grandparents of today's Indian students carry the legacy of their own unhappy school experiences. Scott Beard, a Ho-Chunk who heads Madison Area Technical Colleges Portage campus, said that the legacy of boarding schools, where small Indian children were taken from their parents, beaten for speaking their native language, and not allowed to go home, continues to haunt relations between Indians and schools.

"Education was seen as taking people out of their culture," said Beard, formerly education director for the Ho-Chunk Nation. "When you had grandparents who came out of the boarding school generation, they didn't see education as a good thing. When your son or daughter went off to college, people didn't expect them to come back."

Beard said parents who remember racism and bad treatment from their own school days could be reluctant to get involved in their children's school.

"I tell parents: you can't treat school like a gas station or repair shop and drop your kid off and say, 'I want him fixed,'" Beard said. "You have to be willing to speak out and participate in the schools."

Tribes need to do more for their students.
Finally, tribes can play a stronger role. While all spend money for education - ranging from scholarships to funding counselors in the public schools to running their own school systems and community colleges -Beaulieu said they could do more.

The educational odyssey of Jamie Goodbear shows the problems of tracking highly mobile Indian students, who tend to appear and disappear from school district records. Tribes are governments, Beaulieu said, and as such, should have the ability to better track their students so they don't disappear off educational radar.

"Mobility is a bad one - how can you measure a schools success if the kids are always changing," he asked. Beaulieu cited a school on South Dakotas Pine Ridge reservation, where 75 percent of the students were different in the spring than those who started school the previous fall.

Other tribal policies can encourage education. The Ho-Chunks recently passed a rule that only students who earned a high school diploma can get their trust fund payment - currently around $40,000, per student, paid for by gaming profits - at age 18. Dropouts must wait until age 25.

In judging the success of students such as Goodbear, Beaulieu noted how few generations of Indians have had access to local schools. Beaulieu said that when his father was growing up on the reservation in northern Minnesota, 75 percent of Indian children had no school they could attend.

"It wasn't until the 1930s that Indians began having widespread access to education," he said.

Beaulieu, who was commissioner for Indian education in Minnesota, can rattle off Minnesota statistics showing progress there. In 1948, the year he was born, Beaulieu said, a total of 50 Indians graduated from high school in all of Minnesota. In 1955, 22 Minnesota Indians went to colleges, including those attending cosmetology and trade schools. Today, he said, there are more than 2,000 students of Native American background on campus at the University of Minnesota's flagship campus.

Each student builds a family legacy of educational success.
"Once someone you know goes to college," he said, "it becomes a reasonable option for you, too."

- Betsy Bloom of the La Crosse Tribune contributed to this report

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