Building educational excellence at American Indian schools

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On a recent visit to the Santa Fe Indian School, I was struck by the symbolism at ceremonies marking a new chapter in the school's history.

I had joined tribal leaders to break ground for school buildings funded by $23 million in President Bush's 2002 budget. A new dormitory will be built with $15 million proposed in the President's 2003 budget.

When completed, the school, which now has 550 students, will serve about 1,200 children from 26 tribes, including the 19 New Mexico Pueblos, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Tribes and Navajo Nation.

The event also underscored preserving the past. The old school site, which we visited, and 24 original buildings qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. They will be preserved and transferred to the All-Indian Pueblo Council of New Mexico when the new school is finished.

The ceremonies reflected the school's role as a unique cultural institution that helps the tribes weave the traditions and accomplishments of older generations with the hopes and aspirations of younger ones.

Founded in 1889, Santa Fe Indian School was the first BIA school whose operations were turned over to the community, more than 25 years ago. Pueblo leaders provide political support and spiritual guidance, appointing the school board that oversees the superintendent.

The school is accredited by national and state associations, and graduates 88 percent of its students; seven out of 10 graduates receive higher education. Many return to put their education and experience to work for their tribes. As a Pueblo leader remarked, "Our educational program is a reflection of who we are as Indian people."

The Santa Fe Indian School's success rests on a strong sense of community, commitment to local control, and belief in the pursuit of excellence the same principles that guide President Bush's Indian Education Initiative. The President cares deeply about our children's education and is committed to closing the achievement gap so that no child will be left behind.

That means improving the quality of education in all 185 BIA schools, two thirds of which are managed by tribal groups under grants or contracts. It means working with parents, teachers, administrators and school boards across Indian country. It means higher standards, higher expectations and greater accountability. Meeting these challenges won't be easy. Dramatic changes won't happen overnight.

All of us want to provide these students the opportunity and tools to achieve their full potential. The outcome we all seek is a brighter future for the 48,000 Indian children in BIA schools. And President Bush's Indian Education Initiative provides the tools to carry out this reform.

Providing safe schools is a first step. Many BIA schools have serious structural and mechanical problems that pose a health and safety threat and make learning difficult. The President's 2002 budget provided $293 million for BIA school construction, including $123 million for new buildings at Santa Fe and five other BIA schools and $61 million for major repair projects at 10 more. His 2003 budget calls for another $293 million for BIA school construction, including $120 million for new buildings at Santa Fe and five other schools. When these 12 replacement schools are completed, 4,200 Indian children will go to classes in new, adequately equipped and maintained buildings.

But it takes more than brick and mortar to build a student's mind. Improving academic achievement, the more complex challenge, is of paramount importance in the President's initiative. The effort supports the goals for BIA schools identified by Indian tribes, school boards, and educators.

Through increased budget support, curricula reform, information technology, and new education laws that provide parents greater involvement in their school's development, the President is providing American Indian communities the means to work with us to build educational excellence.

We are placing renewed emphasis on improving reading, math and science education, as well as the teaching of tribal languages and cultures, and expanding the use of educational technology. All BIA schools now have Internet access and the BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs is giving teachers the knowledge, training and resources to use this information superhighway.

The President's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 promotes higher academic standards; increased parental involvement and local control; expanded flexibility in using federal education funds; and program consolidation and streamlining. It also requires greater accountability for student progress and academic achievement, offers funding for what works and expands parental options for children in failing schools.

Under President Bush's Indian Education Initiative, integrating tradition with the modern world in the pursuit of educational excellence can become the standard at all BIA schools.