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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 6, 2003 - Issue 95


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Acting On a Vision

by Betsy Hammond Oregon Live

SILETZ -- The aging elementary school in the middle of town is one of only two majority Native American public schools in Oregon. For years, it has been a dismal failure, turning out students who are so poorly equipped for high school that almost half drop out.

But when members of the resurgent tribal confederation that dominates this town got wind that the school might close, they panicked at the thought of losing their hometown school, however flawed.

They hastily plotted a rebirth -- not only of the school but also of their children's reading and math achievement, along with a redoubling of the tribal confederation's power to directly improve its members' lives.

Their vision: Siletz School, the school run by the Lincoln County School District based in coastal Newport half an hour away, would become Oregon's first Native American run charter school, governed by adults in Siletz for the children of Siletz.

Spearheaded by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and renamed Siletz Valley School, it would welcome both tribal children and scores of non-Native American children who live in the area.

Seven months ago, it was a dream. But quickly it grew to a 100-page plan, which was approved in July by the Lincoln County school board and the Oregon Department of Education.

Last week, the Siletz Tribal Council agreed on a mad-dash plan to open the charter school this fall. They're expecting at least 140 of the 170 students who attended Siletz School to opt for the untested charter school instead of a bus ride to an out-of-town school. School district leaders say they'll do everything they can to help the tribes succeed.

With no teachers hired, no principal recruited, no training done and no new books or computers purchased, the charter school's founders could fall on their faces, acknowledges Brenda Bremner, general manager of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. But tribal officials say it's worth taking to risk to rush and open.

Parents say the old school operated with so much apathy and so many substandard teachers that it would be hard for the new charter school not to do better by its students. The district sent its castoffs -- aging books, mismatched desks, weak teachers -- to Siletz School, they say. For years, barely one-third of Siletz students ended the school year able to read or do math at grade level.

Switching to the Success for All reading program has improved reading achievement slightly in the past couple years, but math scores remained atrocious -- fewer than 30 percent of fifth and eighth graders met benchmarks. The school, named to a federal failing schools list last year, avoided making the list again this year only because it closed.

"The school has to get better. It cannot function as it has in the past. That's a large part of the reason that the tribe stepped forward," Bremner said.

Few in town doubt that the Siletz can get better results, even though the charter school will serve mostly the same students, in the same building, using many of the same textbooks and a few of the same teachers as before.

The plans include a new math program, more computers and technology, more testing to detect and fix individual skill gaps, and stepped-up reading instruction. Planners also say the school, which scarcely reflected the Native American heritage of the majority of its students, will begin to deliver a huge dose of culture, including teaching the literature, history and one ancestral language, a dialect of Athabaskan.

Confederation moving up The Siletz are a confederation of 27 tribal bands, including the Klickitat, Takelma and Coquille, who once lived in the western third of Oregon, Northern California and southern Washington. Their ancestral lands were taken away in the mid-1800s, and survivors from the diverse bands were forced into reservation lands. . In 1955, the U.S. government "terminated" the Siletz.

Tribal status was restored in 1977, and the confederation runs a 4,000-acre reservation. Since 1995, the Siletz have operated Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City. The tribal confederation has pumped its resources into housing, health care, day care, college scholarships and cultural programs for its 4,000 members.

Siletz Valley School would be the first predominantly Native American charter school in Oregon, but one of a growing number nationwide. The tribes will rely on state per-pupil allocations, services from the school district and state and federal grants to run the charter school.

Siletz parents from varied backgrounds and with different educational needs for their children are ecstatic about the plans.

Mona Fisher, her face all sharp angles, was born and raised in Siletz. Her family and community imbued her with appreciation for tribal culture and heritage, and she in turn raised her three boys on a steady diet of tribal drumming, history and connections to native culture.

When her middle son was bused out of Siletz for high school, as are all the town's teenagers because Siletz School ends at eighth grade, he missed community and tribal connections and quit school, his mother says.

When her youngest, Dakota Burgins, learned Siletz School was closing, he cried and begged to be schooled at home rather than bused 20 minutes to school in Toledo. He thrived at his hometown school, despite its problems, his mother said.

All that helps explain why she hollered for joy when she learned the state had approved the charter school's grant proposal. Dakota, a flash of wiry legs and yellow shorts out on the soccer field that day, needs to remain in Siletz for school, she says.

"The charter school will be better, it will be a lot better," Fisher gushes. "It will have arts and music and we'll have our culture. Its important for our kids, because they are the ones who are going to grow up and carry it on to future generations, or it will be lost."

Ties to culture Kathy Ness, flashing a round-cheeked smile, also is the mother of a Siletz School student. But she lacks Fisher's grounding in tribal matters. Raised in Salem alongside white half-siblings by her white mother, not her Native American father, she knew almost nothing of tribal culture or the Siletz community until she moved to town in 2001. She raised her older children in similar ignorance of their history, she says.

That's why there is a particular sweetness as she sits sewing her first pair of moccasins with her youngest child, 7-year-old Samantha Messer. Samantha has attention problems that make school harder for her than for most children. Every morning, Ness takes Samantha the four blocks to her classroom.

The charter school means Samantha can continue to go to school near home, plus get an infusion of knowledge about her tribal heritage. "I want her to have her history. It's part of life I missed out on," Ness says.

Kathryn Stewart, who is white, moved to this tree-shrouded town on the Siletz River eight years ago. She, too, is ecstatic that the tribes have wrested control of the school.

Stewart's hearing-impaired granddaughter, Chelsey, has thrived at the small-town school. Despite flaws, the school and its teachers have done a terrific job for Chelsey -- in some cases because her grandmother was there to insist that it happen, she says. So Stewart wants her schooled in town.

And, having watched the tribal confederation from her position as director of an alcohol and drug prevention program, that receives support from the Siletz, Stewart is confident that tribal leaders have the drive and capability to upgrade the school.

"If they get behind this and they mean business, they will make it happen and they will make it high-quality," Stewart says.

Although her granddaughter has gotten a good education, many children have not, she says. Some parents have found the quality of instruction at Siletz School so lacking that they pulled their children and enrolled them in other Lincoln County schools. Bremner, the tribal executive officer, is one of them.

Now some of those parents, including Brenda Bisson, who is white, are considering transferring children back to their hometown school. The tribal confederation's track record operating a first-rate Head Start program suggests it can run the school better than the school district, Bisson says. But she's taking a wait-and-see attitude about whether she should enroll her two children there this fall.

"I still need to see what is going on, with curriculum and getting new teachers . . .. It would have to be very different from the public school that was there," she says.

Tribal leaders have taken the lead and done the work, but made sure everyone in town -- tribal or not, parent or not -- could have a say in how the school would operate, Bisson and other parents say.

Oregon's other majority Native American school, Warm Springs Elementary, faces different circumstances and challenges. Unlike the Siletz school, it is located on a reservation, serves Native American children almost exclusively and has a principal and many teachers who are Native American.

Roger Stewart, director of administrative services for the Lincoln County schools, says it will be tough for the Siletz charter school to post huge gains in achievement, especially because the charter school will get roughly the same funding as the old public school. "If they can pull it off, great," he said. "It's going to be a challenge."

If Siletz Valley School gets off the ground this fall, it will be only the fourth charter school in Oregon to open after a single summer of planning -- and by far the largest to move that fast.

Delina John, a tribal member with two young children, is adamant it will happen. She's been distressed by poor educational quality at the old school but was more upset at the prospect of her children facing long bus rides to a school where she says they would be stuffed into overcrowded classrooms.

The charter school, she says, will be different. It will deliver for Siletz children the same dream that all parents have for their children: "I want my children to succeed."

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