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Coeur d’Alene struggle with public education

PLUMMER, Idaho – Idaho lawmakers have declined funding for an American Indian education coordinator at the state level to address issues on curriculum, high dropout rates and the complexities of the No Child Left Behind Act in Indian country.

The funding’s opponents said the education of Native students is up to local schools. That turns the focus back to districts such as the Plummer/Worley School District on the Coeur d’Alene reservation, where American Indians make up 64 percent of the student body.

Administrators and teachers there must figure out how to provide equal educational opportunities and honor racial diversity against a backdrop of fallout from a century of failed federal Indian policy, presumed European superiority and new federal testing mandates.

They say things are steadily improving, and point to climbing test scores and higher graduation figures to make their case. But the gains have not been enough to meet state standards or make a big impression on the tribal government and many families.

For example, tribal critics paid scant attention to the first grade’s 95th-percentile ranking on Idaho’s Reading Indicator, which put Lakeside Elementary ahead of the state average, or the doubling of the high school graduating class.

Wilma Bob, who belongs to a parent group demanding action from the tribal council, agreed the system works for some; but at her job in social services, she sees too many children falling through the cracks.

“Our kids are continuing to have problems for one reason or another. We can’t seem to pin anybody down on what the needs and necessities are,” Bob said.

One problem is that students are penalized for missing school for funerals and other traditional needs, she said.

“If you miss more than seven days, you lose all the credits you worked for in that quarter,” Bob said. “Students had to take the same level of studies three years in a row.”

District Superintendent George Olsen said he recently relaxed the attendance policy, and he instituted a program that makes it more convenient for students to make up credits.

The elementary school also has a new Success Center that offers academic tutoring and enrichment programs from drumming to cooking. Test scores have improved dramatically for participating students, but the distance from school to the edges of the reservation presents a barrier, Principal Joe St. John said. He has room for twice as many students, but attendance can result in a 12-hour day when travel time is included.

Dissatisfaction with the public school prompted the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to negotiate a partnership with Washington State University’s College of Education for a five-year initiative to help Native students. WSU published the results of a needs assessment in February, which included interviews with tribal adults who recollected their school experiences. Almost half said they left school or were forced out, and 38 percent told of teachers stigmatizing Native students. One-third cited a stereotypical presentation of American Indians in the curriculum.

The tribe and WSU partnership now provides tutoring after school at the tribe’s new high-tech computer lab. However, students must find their own way across town because the school district has not agreed to provide transportation.

Plummer/Worley, like districts throughout the nation, is scrambling to meet requirements of the NCLB Act, which requires all children to be proficient in English, math and science by 2014. Schools must make “adequate yearly progress” by reaching annual benchmarks in every demographic. Schools that can’t keep up are subject to sanctions, which some say scare away qualified teachers.

There are no tribally affiliated teachers at Plummer/

Worley, although two claim Native ancestry.

Tribal Education Director Marjorie Zarate said efforts are underway to recruit Native teachers. She is also addressing a legacy of alienation from the government’s schools, which hinders parents’ involvement in advocating for their children.

“We’re really only a couple of generations from hunters and gatherers, when missionaries took children away to boarding schools,” Zarate said. “There has never been a reconciliation of that.”

She believes strong ties to family and culture help Native students succeed.

The National Congress of American Indians concurred.

“We know from academic studies that Indian children flourish when their classroom experiences are built on our tradition, language and our culture,” NCAI President Joe Garcia said. “The No Child Left Behind Act allows for this kind of education, but the resources to actually make it possible have yet to be appropriated.”

For now, it’s up to teachers, such as Lakeside’s Bonnie Wilcoxyn, who called the legislature’s refusal to fund an American Indian advocate “obscene.”

She teaches fourth grade, where students learn Idaho state history, including local tribal history; and she must pick from among the state’s approved textbooks. She selected the best one she can find, where the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is mentioned nine times. Gaelic by heritage, Wilcoxyn’s walls contain maps of the tribe’s aboriginal territory with place names in Coeur d’Alene. She studies the language two nights a week and arranged for North Idaho College to offer the language instruction to her students and other teachers. She convinced the school district to pick up the tab for teachers who forego credit; otherwise, they must pay $1,200 per semester.

Nevertheless, school critics are not raving about her dedication.

There are no guarantees teachers like Wilcoxyn will be available to Idaho’s diverse student population. The state does not require diversity training, and hiring decisions are left to the sensitivities of administrators, from principals on up to superintendents and, ultimately, local school boards, who are placed in their seats by each districts’ voters.