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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 24, 2002 - Issue 68


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Halting Indian Dropouts

by Betty Reid Arizona Republic
Mortarboard and DiplomaTed Hibbeler curbed a soaring Native American high school dropout rate in the Valley's urban school district using knowledge from his Lakota Sioux background.

He moved to Phoenix from Nebraska a decade ago to work in the Native American Education Program for the Phoenix Union High School District.

What he saw shocked him.

Native students were leaving classrooms in higher numbers than their peers.

Phoenix Union had a student population of 19,693 for the 1992-93 academic year.

At least 630 were Native students, whose dropout rate was 24 percent.

They came from various tribes, Hopi, Sioux, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, Gila River, Tohono O'odham, Navajo, Apache and Paiute.

Today, Phoenix Union has 709 Native students among the 23,013-student population.

The dropout rate among Native students has dipped to 11.2 percent.

Hibbeler, who grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and attended a Catholic school, identifies with Valley Native students. Grandpa Iron Shell and his parents are his role models. They encouraged him to get an education and help people.

"Culturally speaking, we are a quiet people," he said. "We don't make a lot of noise, and we don't ask a lot of questions. I remember, as a student at the Catholic school, nuns thought that I was learning disabled. Yet, I was taught to listen, not talk. And not question because it's a sign of disrespect."

Someone, however, had to stand up and toot their horns for Phoenix's Native students.

Hibbeler stepped forward and quietly redesigned the program.

When Hibbeler started in 1992, there were only two employees overseeing the needs of Indian students. Native students in the system finished their high school education at one campus, while the second batch hopscotched throughout the district and eventually abandoned school altogether.

Hibbeler initiated six programs designed to bind Native students to 11 Phoenix Union campuses.

Native students, in addition to studies, deal with substance abuse, depression and peer problems.

Another barrier is they often live with relatives in the city. Their biological parents often stay behind on tribal lands.

This creates living conditions where an aunt, perhaps two years older than the student, could be a guardian.

Today, there are 11 Native American student advisers, a half-dozen programs that help Indian students with their education and 640 urban Native American students in the program.

"All we are doing is bringing back the old ways to help our community with our young people," Hibbeler said.

That practice involves Native elders whose wisdom about life and moral teachings were passed from one generation to the next.

To calm whirlwind emotions, elders share their wisdom and life experiences with youngsters.

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