Educators say some Indian children being left behind

Nicole Boswell
Nicole Boswell dreams of being a psychologist and working on the reservation.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The Circle of Life school in the village of White Earth is old and well worn, but Paul Backman's classroom is bright and comfortable. The classes are small, often 10 or fewer students and the atmosphere is casual.

Ashley Stevens is 17 and like many of her fellow students at Circle of Life, she's changed schools often.

" I've been to Park Rapids, I've been to four schools in Fargo Moorhead, I moved to California and went to school there. I've just been to a lot of schools," says Stevens.

That's a common story in reservation schools. Lot's of students moving around, and lots of students dropping out.

Social Studies teacher Paul Backman says it's difficult to focus on high stakes tests when often the greatest challenge is convincing kids to come to school.

Paul Backman
Paul Backman teaches a half dozen subjects. He's not sure if he can continue doing that under No Child Left Behind rules.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"So you're putting all this pressure on testing and test scores in every situation, for every school, for every group of students in that school. It's one size fits all, we're all going to meet this standard, we're all going to improve every year which is kind of short sighted and I think it's unrealistic," says Backman.

Backman says attendance at Circle of Life has improved after the school started paying students $5 a week if they are in school every day.

Backman says he teaches to Minnesota education standards, but he's not convinced the standardized tests are a good measure of American Indian kids from White Earth.

"If we're going to have a test that's such a high value test that impacts so many things about the school and the student, we better make sure those tests are valid and culturally appropriate," says Backman.

It's one size fits all, we're all going to meet this standard, we're all going to improve every year which is kind of short sighted and I think it's unrealistic.

Tests sometimes have cultural references that students don't understand, according to Backman, who says reservation schools should have the option of adjusting test questions to make the test more relevant to Indian students.

Circle of Life students say they try to pass the standardized tests. But it's not the standards that motivates most of them, it's the $25 they earn for a passing score.

Circle of Life Superintendent and Principal Mitch Vogt says the school is making some progress. The graduation rate is over 80 percent, compared to less than 60 percent five years ago. Student attendance is up this year and Vogt thinks the improved attendance is an indirect result of education reform.

"I don't think the No Child Left Behind legislation motivates students directly," says Vogt. "I think (it motivates them) indirectly because the school becomes more motivated to motivate students. So, indirectly, No Child Left Behind is impacting student attendance."

Vogt is concerned that No Child Left Behind doesn't provide the resources to address the social issues like broken families, poverty and alcohol abuse that affects so many American Indian kids.

"All of that decreases the likelihood that number one they're going to stay in school, and then of course graduate from school. I think the native population if you look at statistics, tells us we have a real challenge," says Vogt.

Mitch Vogt says a proposal to develop tests for American Indian students has been shelved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs because of a lack of funding.

Circle of Life school is working with tribal officials to enforce truancy laws, says Vogt. He says one area the school could do better is exposing the students to more American Indian role models. He says all many students know is life on the reservation, and it's hard to see themselves as college graduates with professional careers.

COL class
Circle of Life school students say they understand an education is a way to a better life.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Vogt says the school is committed to doing whatever it takes to meet the education standards. He says that means making the school a safe place where kids want to be, rewarding them for coming to school, and teaching to the tests.

The focus on tests and standards is hurting American Indian students, according to Director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University David Beaulieu.

Beaulieu says as schools become more focused on tests, the American Indian dropout rate is increasing. He says reservation schools need to focus on more than a student's academic performance.

"The issues that face young people outside of the school, we have to pay attention to them. I suppose that's another aspect of culturally based education, understanding what the heck is going on and engaging them beyond the school wall," says Beaulieu.

Beaulieu says reservation schools need more flexibility to create schools where kids are valued and given a reason to stay in school. He says American Indian students generally learn better with an interactive setting rather than listening to classroom lectures.

That opinion is reinforced by the Circle of Life students. When asked what they would do to make school better, they choose more group projects rather than individual study.

These students know their teachers are concerned about testing, but it's not as important to the students. What they want is a high school diploma and a chance at a better life.

Jonathan Dean Jackson says he sees education as an escape.

"You can't really get anywhere without an education. I found getting an education would get me where I want to go in life. Basically anywhere except the rez," says Jackson. "Because I really don't like it here. I want to go out there and do something with my life."

Jackson says he's interested in being a mechanic, or working on computers. He knows he needs a college education to make that happen, but he doesn't have any specific plans.

Nicole Boswell wants to be a psychologist and work with American Indian kids.

"I'm on the track to graduation. I'll be the first person to graduate in my family out of two brothers and one sister. I almost wanted to drop out last semester, but no, I wanted to graduate because my grandma is really excited and stuff. Yeah, I want to make a lot of people proud in the future," says Boswell.

David Beaulieu at the Center for Indian Education, says more native students are going to college and becoming professionals than ever before. But at the same time, student dropout rates at reservation schools are increasing. Beaulieu says that means a growing number of Indian kids are being left behind.