FORT YATES, N.D. – Education in Indian country lags behind the rest of the nation for many reasons, and inadequate funding and meddling by the bureaucracy may be the top reason why, according to tribal educators and officials.
For the past five years, budget cuts have occurred in the administration’s proposed budgets; some funding was restored by Congress each fiscal year.
The BIA now plans to reorganize the education program, and apparently will do so over the vehement objections of tribal leaders, especially those from the Plains.
It has been said that education is about more than funding, but funding is a major part of any successful educational system. Indian education is funded at a lower level than any non-Indian education system in the country.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, held a listening session on education in Fort Yates March 23. The majority of the session’s panelists said money was at the root of providing a balanced education with an emphasis on language and culture.
“The purpose of No Child Left Behind was … to make sure all children are proficient in math and reading and science and other things; but the strategy [that was] put together was a deficit model of education and forcing especially poor schools and poor children to lose out because they don’t have all the resources available that more affluent families do,” said Roger Bordeaux, president of the National Indian School Boards Association and superintendent of Tiospa Zina Tribal School on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation in northeastern South Dakota. “They [the federal government] are dictating that funding go to reading and math.”
“We have a lot of issues with drugs and alcohol. A lot of students are affected by it,” said Mary Price, a sophomore and student body president at Tiospa Zina.
“The students see the parents do it. A lot of kids participate in sports, and those don’t do drugs and alcohol. If we had more things to keep them occupied they wouldn’t do drugs and alcohol,” she said.
Rose Bear, a junior at Tiospa Zina, echoed Price’s comments about creating more activities for students. The two said methamphetamine was available and that drugs could be acquired in school.
“Twenty-two high school students this year are either in or going to treatment programs right now. We have to struggle hard to get them back in school and into the tribal society, and sometimes because of resources we can’t provide all the resources that are needed by them,” Bordeaux said.
The socio-economic conditions on some reservations adversely affect learning; and without adequate funding and community educational efforts, many students are lost. Young people may not have a parent or guardian who places education as a high priority.
“There is no one telling kids that school is important,” said Robin Quinn, program director for the Little Voices Group Home on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation. Little Voices is a group home that houses youth who have been sent there on state and parental referrals.
“Many kids who may be problems are sent to boot camps instead of getting help,” Quinn said.
She said children many not have anyone at home to talk to about school or other life issues.
“Kids get picked on in school, so they don’t want to go to school. They are depressed and think nobody is there for them. It’s hard working with these kids without their parents.”
What has worked to help American Indian youth succeed is paying more attention to language in a cultural curriculum; but funding for such activities, especially in an immersion setting, is lacking and the requirements of No Child Left Behind hamper the language and cultural education.
“Math and reading are the only things that count,” said Marc Bluestone, assistant elementary principal at the New Town Public School District on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. The Three Affiliated Tribes were the first school system to teach a language other than English as a requirement for high school graduation. Bluestone is also director of Indian education and administers the funding for language and cultural programs.
“Adequate yearly progress is important, and we have made AYP for the past few years. We had to reduce culture and language studies because of the AYP needs. Eventually our language will be gone,” Bluestone said.
“The Office of Indian Education Programs is hiring people who don’t know the importance of teaching culture: now it’s all about math, reading and AYP,” he said.
Keeping the language alive keeps the culture alive, speaks to who the people are, gives youth an identity to help their self-esteem and provide a sense of balance, educators said.
Tammy DeCoteau is field manager of the Association of American Indian Affairs’ Native language program.
“Keeping the language alive is a battle. The only way we can keep the language alive is through teachers; but those who go off to college learn to teach in English, and the elders who speak don’t know how to teach,” she said.
“One of the problems created by the NCLB is that teachers who become teachers in our schools, who have the ability, don’t have teaching degrees. We do agree it’s important that AYP be included in efforts designed to ensure [students] meet and exceed educational standards, but they should not be at the expense of our culture,” she said.
The requirements of NCLB do not allow for non-certified teachers, and most of the language and cultural teachers are not certified. DeCoteau requested that NCLB be changed to accommodate the teaching of language and culture.
“We have to make real tough decisions on how to spend the funds from our basic instructional funds, and also our supplemental funds, because of NCLB. It’s getting tighter and tighter every day, and we have to make a decision between a teacher, parent educator or program in some cases,” Bordeaux said.
“I think it will be more difficult to get more money unless somebody makes a decision to stop the war, but that’s not going to happen for a while – they are talking at least through Bush’s term and into the next term.
“If you could specifically put in language that stops them [the BIA] from using any money from school programs for reorganization and [makes them] put [the money] into programs, it would help. I can guarantee that those senior executive members will not make any difference in what happens in the classroom,” Bordeaux said.
The reorganization of the education program within the BIA has emerged as a hot-button issue and has raised the ire of many tribal leaders across the country, especially in the Plains region.
“We must remember that education is and always will be an entitlement for our children based on the treaty. I am sad to see that in the president’s proposed budget is a $16 million cut, while there is a $9 million increase in senior management. It looks to me that we are leaving our children behind.
“I am hopeful and optimistic about restoration of the funds into the budget,” said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “The treaties say that decisions are to be made at our level.
“All tribes in the Great Plains region are united against the reorganization plan. We agree there needs to be reform, but at the grass-roots level, not from the top down.”
Frazier said he was concerned about the fact that when budgets are discussed, operations are never talked about. He described a school on the Cheyenne River Reservation that made its AYP goal, yet was rewarded with a $130,000 cut. “What are they going to do? Lay off some teachers or a couple of counselors?”
Some schools put up their own money to develop programs with no response from the BIA. “The leadership is not there. There are opportunities, but the administration chooses not to do it,” Bordeaux said.