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Chavers: Navajo Prep School shines

The first time I visited Navajo Preparatory School 20 years ago, I was less than impressed. The young man I talked to was one of the dorm aides. He was 30 years old and was thinking about going back to college again.

He had been to college two or three times before, and would drop out and go to work. This time he was thinking about finishing college and becoming somebody. He asked me if he could apply to us for a scholarship.

''Sure,'' I told him. ''But you have to make straight A's. Do you work really hard at college when you go?''

''No,'' he said. ''I don't work hard. No one ever told me before that I have to get straight A's.''

''Well, I'm telling you,'' I said. And I have told several thousand other Indian students the same thing ever since.

The young man later finished college and today is somebody. During that time, NPS has also changed its colors and has become a strong symbol of hope for Indian country.

You don't have to be Navajo to attend the school. They have students from the Pueblos, the Utes, the Apaches and several other tribes. But their mission is clear.

They are in business to produce the next generation of Navajo leaders. And they are doing a bang-up job. Their motto is ''Leading into the Future.''

It was called Navajo Methodist Mission when I first visited it. I wanted to talk to the headmaster that day, but he was not on campus. Several people told me later that he might have been drinking. He was not setting a great example for young people.

Then 15 years ago, the school was about to close. The Methodists had started it in Farmington, N.M., in 1880. They, like a lot of other denominations, decided to get out of the ''Indian business'' in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Lutherans, the Episcopalians, the Catholics and some other denominations either got out of the ''Indian business'' entirely or retrenched. One of the few that did not was the American Baptists, who still support Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla.

Peterson Zah was the president of the Navajo Nation at the time. Within a few years, they decided to buy the Methodist Mission and turn it into a college preparatory school. It was one of the wisest decisions the tribe has ever made.

The board hired Betty Ojaye, who was running the Navajo North Central office, to head the school. Except for a few years when she stepped aside to run the development office, Ojaye has remained at the head of the school. She has done a magnificent job, as evidenced by these statistics: More than 90 percent of the graduates have gone on to college for the past 12 years; in two of the past four years, 100 percent of the graduates have gone on to college; the dropout rate has been less than 5 percent for more than a decade.

The dean of instruction is one of our Catching the Dream graduates, John Tohtsoni Jr. Tohtsoni finished at Purdue University in 1994 with honors, and went straight to NPS. He has earned his master's in education from the University of Colorado with honors, attending during the summers. We inducted him as a new board member of CTD in June.

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Tohtsoni ran the Gifted and Talented Education program at NPS for the past decade. He brings his students to the Exemplary Institute that we run each April in Albuquerque, N.M., and they amaze people with their abilities. He lets the students run the workshops they do, which is what amazes people.

Getting admitted to the NPS is harder than getting admitted to most colleges. The school draws mainly from 67 middle schools around the reservation. Students have to apply, submit an essay, go through a series of interviews and visit the campus to meet people. They also have to take a test on campus.

When they are admitted, it is almost a guarantee that they will be graduated. And their graduation is almost a guarantee that they will enter and finish college.

Students stay on campus from Sunday night until Friday afternoon. Then buses take them home for the weekend. The buses pick them up again Sunday afternoon to bring them back to campus. They have five dorms on campus, including four that are brand-new.

They have a full complement of activities on campus. Baseball, football and basketball are the big sports. Students can also play on the track, cross-country, softball, volleyball and golf teams.

They also have a variety of clubs for students to join, from National Honor Society to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Eagle marching band.

They also offer Navajo language, history and culture to all students. Most Navajo students take advantage of these courses, while few of the non-Navajo students do.

The academic counselor is Sandra Westbrook, who has been on the campus for several years. She has seen the college attendance rate rise from 90 percent to 100 percent during her tenure. CTD awarded her the honor of counselor of the year this past April.

Students can also get tutoring and counseling at any time. They can go all the way through pre-calculus in math while they are there. Most colleges require calculus for science and engineering majors, so students leave fully prepared for college. Sabrina Hood, the dean of student life, oversees a comprehensive system of dorm life, study halls and other services to make sure students succeed.

Kathy Lee, the librarian, oversees a library of over 9,000 volumes, enough to put them in the highest category with the accrediting agencies. The school is fully accredited by the North Central Association. The Board of Trustees is small, only five members, but they have a close relationship to the campus.

NPS is clearly a role model for tribal education in the United States. Other tribes should take it as an example and develop their own prep schools. After 37 years in this business, I have my doubts as to whether the other schools will ever change to put Indian students into college. As Bob Burnette from Rosebud used to say, they have been discriminating against Indians for so long that they can't discriminate in favor of Indians.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement organization in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact him at