Charter school tailored for Tohono O’odham succeeds

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) – In one Tohono O’odham story, there was a boy whose mother loved to play toka, an Indian game akin to field hockey.

The boy followed his mother to faraway matches, only to be ignored.

Forgotten and lonely, the boy wandered into the desert, crying, and turned into a saguaro that grew strong and stately.

That story is why the saguaro is symbolic of the Ha:san Preparatory & Leadership School, a charter school with about 150 students – 99 percent of them American Indian and most of them members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

For school administrators, the mainstream educational system stands in for the neglectful mother who hasn’t nurtured those seeds of knowledge in eager children.

It doesn’t take a policy wonk to see that something isn’t quite working.

About 13 percent of American Indians have bachelor’s degrees, less than half the national average. Indian students also have lower retention rates after one year of college than any other ethnic group.

Younger students also fare poorly – for example, 82 percent of Arizona’s Anglo fifth-graders passed their reading exams last year, compared with 47 percent of Indian fifth-graders.

Although academic results so far have been mixed, educators at Ha:san (pronounced HAHshun) say their innovative approach shows great promise.

Foreign-language requirements are met with two years of Tohono O’odham language training, though Spanish is offered as well.

The students learn traditional Native art and traditional tribal songs and grow traditional crops, such as squash and beans, in a school garden.

The students still learn American history – it’s a standard required by the state – but teachers understand there’s going to be some resistance to hearing about what happened on the colonial frontier. In learning the material, students are asked to consider history from the Native perspective, since those voices aren’t always heard in textbooks.

Half of the teachers are American Indian, and all of the teachers spend one hour of professional development a week integrating language and culture.

Nineteen-year-old Frances Ortiz decided to go to the school two years ago to be surrounded by other Indian students.

“I thought it was important so that I could learn more about my culture,” she said.

Other schools she attended might have had social clubs for Indian students but lacked the academic focus. She struggles with the language, she said, but thinks it’s important to learn because she worries that it will disappear without more commitment from
her generation.

The school is not located on the reservation, in part because when it was founded 11 years ago, there was concern among some tribal members that the charter would take the best and brightest students and harm the existing school district.

Over time, the relationship with the tribe has grown and the location, near the University of Arizona, helps serve as a bridge between the more insular world of the reservation and the larger community, said the school’s grant writer, Lynne Colombe, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

“Students grow up in a place where everyone looks like them and talks like them, so it’s difficult for kids to view outside institutions as a place where they will fit in,” she said.

Aside from the linguistic and social barriers, she said, there also remains a trust issue.

Resistance to institutions, she said, protected the culture from being erased. On the other hand, she said, education is an important piece of getting tribal members’ needs met – and the school’s goal is to return future professionals and cultural leaders to their communities.

“When students tell me there are no jobs on the reservation, I tell them there are no jobs for ditch diggers. Those jobs are all taken,” she said. “But there are jobs for teachers and doctors and nurses.”

The nation has been so supportive of the school that it provided $500,000 last year to keep it running. The Shuk Toak district of the nation also provided $16,000 to help offset transportation costs, given the distance students must travel.

Director William Rosenberg came on in September, only to find by December that the school was running over budget from turnover in administration, a loss of enrollment and higher transportation costs.

Test scores are lower than the state average in all subjects and are comparable with the schools in the Indian Oasis-Baboquivari School District, which serves the reservation. But under No Child Left Behind, both Ha:san schools made yearly progress. The Baboquivari middle and high schools did not.

As part of their graduation requirement, students must apply to three universities. Colombe said the school has a 100 percent acceptance rate, although she estimates about half actually attend.

Tom Young, an 18-year-old senior, said the academic expectations and the college focus are two big reasons he’s willing to take a 90-minute bus ride each way from the reservation.

Karen Francis-Begay, an adviser on American Indian affairs to the UA president, said 1,006 American Indians attend the UA, about 2.6 percent of the enrolled population. Although that’s higher than ever before, she said she’d like to see that number double in five years to more accurately reflect the pool of college-eligible students.

Amanda Tachine, the interim director of Native American Student Affairs at the UA, taught high school math at Ha:san for two years.

Tachine said she wishes there were more programs like Ha:san, which she said is unique in the state.

“I just love the fact they infuse so much of the culture into their learning,” Tachine said. “Especially for high school and middle school students, it’s so important they feel strong about their identity and about where they come from – and that they are encouraged to see education as being a piece of that culture.”

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