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Buildings will be built, but educators face tremendous challenges

BILLINGS, Mont. -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton continued her message that "no child will be left behind" addressing more than 2,000 participants at the National Indian Education Association meeting here.

Norton is the first Interior secretary to attend the annual conference that drew tribal educators and students from across Indian country, including Alaska and Hawaii.

Norton spoke about a shared mission in closing the achievement gap between Native American and white students by buildings better physical learning environments and assisting in programs that bring technology and parents to the classroom.

"Leaving no child behind means that every teacher, administrator, educator, parent and school board focuses on high standards, high expectations and success for all students," Norton said.

The secretary, who addressed the National Indian School Board Association in July in Portland, said educators talked specific goals to improve education in Indian country.

"We believe we can achieve those goals and we want to even surpass those goals. We also recognize that it is not going to be easy. I know that dramatic change won't happen overnight. If we work together we can achieve the results we want for the 50,000 Indian children in BIA schools today and for other Indian children in public schools," Norton said.

Norton said pride in a school is important to build academic performance and pointed to miserable surroundings students in aging, crumbling buildings endure across the nation. She said her agency is working to change those circumstances.

The Santa Fe Indian School, built in 1889, serves 550 students from reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. The buildings are decayed to a point where electrical, plumbing, air-conditioning along with fire and safety systems routinely fail, she explained.

"On the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, N.D., at least 80 percent of the students go to school in portable buildings located on a steep slope that creates dangerous winter time hazards. The pipes routinely freeze and the students shiver.

Under this administration, these things will be fixed. We're getting things done."

The Bush administration asked for more than $300 million for new facilities and repair of the aging, crumbling schools in 2002, recently approved by a congressional committee.

Norton said at least $123 million will be invested to construct six new schools and $151 million will be used to fix and repair others. With help from Congress, she said six schools, including the Santa Fe and Belcourt schools will be rebuilt along with four others next year.

High on the national agenda to improve school facilities is a proposal under review before Congress which would allow tribes to begin building new facilities by committing themselves to bond issues while waiting for federal money.

"We would get the money up front. It allows us to jump start the process," she said, adding, "We know that it takes more than bricks and mortar."

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said that while the agency will engage in aggressive building, educators will need to focus on building a knowledge base for young minds as students work with an overwhelming amount of information using new technologies.

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"We had the biggest budget ever in the history of the United States for Indian education in FY2002, that's a nice start, but it is just the beginning," McCaleb said.

"Your work is much more important than the sticks and bricks ? You are going to provide the next generation with choice. Choice to make their selections of their careers, how they will live their lives, how they will protect their lives and how they will provide for their families.

He asked the educators to think of themselves as great search engines on the computers for the future of students "because long after your association is over, they will be using these skills and the knowledge you have given them to search that wonderful world of the Internet."

Technology is only a tool for the mind. McCaleb said the far greater task is teaching young people how to use the tools and analyze information.

Norton said another step in enhancing learning for American Indian children is programs closing the digital divide and adult education programs that assist parents in nurturing their children while picking up new skills.

All schools operated by the BIA have been hooked up to the Internet and teachers are being trained on how to use the technology and engaging students in learning the productive use of emerging technologies, she said.

"I'm happy to report that was a promise made and a promise kept ?road blocks on the super information highway have come down once and for all," Norton said, emphasizing that "Just being connected to the Internet isn't enough for children to learn."

Norton pointed to the innovative Family and Education Program (FACE) literacy program which encourages parents to work with their children from birth to the third grade while improving their own skills through parenting and adult education programs.

She said recent research showed the program has been highly effective, changing lives. "The result is for every dollar invested in the program, is $6 saved in remediation, welfare and teen pregnancy."

Michelle Lorenzo, a FACE parent whose children attend the Pine Hill School in New Mexico, wrote an essay about her accomplishments including working toward her GED, gaining computer skills and learning skills she never thought she would learn.

"The program has changed my life forever," Lorenzo wrote.

Consultation, communication and cooperation, all in the service of conservation has been Norton's mission since she was appointed in January. Today, she said, "I'm going to amend that ? to all in the service of educating our children."

To further those goals, an agreement will be signed with the American Indian Education Consortium and the BIA, she said. It is for training new BIA teachers. Recruitment will be paramount for reservation communities because few tribal members are employed as educators on the reservation and public schools.

The NIEA, founded in 1969, gives Native Americans more of a voice in education policies and is the nation's largest and oldest American Indian education group. A diverse group of more than 3,000 attendees including administrators, teachers, parents and students attended the conference held each year at different sites.

As of Oct. 29 at least 2,700 delegates representing more than 550 tribes and Native groups from around the country registered. Many of the students who attended the conference visited booths to find out about enrichment programs, college programs designed to assist Native American students in their career paths and networking with other students from across the nation.