-- 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.
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.
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'
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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,"
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
parents from varied backgrounds and with different educational needs
for their children are ecstatic about the plans.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
they get behind this and they mean business, they will make it happen
and they will make it high-quality," Stewart says.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."