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Conference tackles tough issues in education

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HELENA, Mont. - Combating the high drop-out rate among American Indians in Montana will take new ways of thinking about personal and societal responsibilities, speakers told a recent gathering of tribal educators.

"We need some radical change," said Lori Falcon, an Indian education specialist with the state Office of Public Instruction (OPI). "We need to get out of the box that Western European society has put us in."

Recent research by OPI shows that the completion rate for American Indian high school students in Montana is only about 56 percent. That's compared to a nearly 82 percent completion rate for non-Indian students. Other related figures compiled by the state are just as troubling.

"Somewhere along the line we have deteriorated the idea of what public education should be," added Patrick Weasel Head, a Blackfeet tribal member who serves as interim director of the Office of American Indian Student Services at the University of Montana-Missoula.

Weasel Head and Falcon addressed scores of educators attending the 21st annual Montana-Wyoming Indian Education Association conference. The gathering included dozens of workshops that dealt with cultural issues in the classroom, the federal No Child Left Behind program, student proficiency and testing, and ways to keep Indian students in school, among other topics. Several prominent tribal leaders from around the region also gave a series of keynote addresses.

One of the main things that needs to change, Weasel Head and Falcon said, is the poor attitudes some Indian parents have about their children's education. Being surrounded with poverty does not help the situation, they noted, because it is often difficult to see a way out. But if more parents embrace the values of education and become more involved in the everyday lives of students, the number of children skipping school or dropping out entirely would decrease.

School administrators and teachers also need to take a harder line regarding absenteeism, the speakers said, and stronger personal connections need to be made with distraught and discouraged students to keep them in class.

Falcon and Weasel Head are heavily involved in a new, two-year demonstration project to lower the drop-out rate at reservation schools in Browning, Heart Butte, Rocky Boy, Box Elder, Lame Deer and Poplar. Funding with a federal grant, the project involves forming partnerships with students, their families, their tribal communities and schools to develop effective prevention strategies.

While there are many reasons young students give up school, doing things such as enforcing curfews and drinking and drug laws, encouraging other students to be peer mentors, providing adequate facilities for teens who are pregnant, and instilling higher expectations will all help, the speakers said. Adding more Indian teachers to the mix would also give students more positive role models. And increasing the overall number of teachers would help keep more focus on students who are having the most difficulties, they added.

Weasel Head noted that school drop-outs keep the cycle of poverty in place in tribal communities because many former students end up on welfare or in the criminal justice system. In short, he said, there needs to be a tightening of the holes that allow students to easily quit school and slide into oblivion.

"It's got to start someplace," he said.

Falcon noted that the Flathead Indian Reservation's Arlee School District, with about 65 percent Indian students, has far higher retention rates than many other similar districts in Montana. That's because among other things, administrators target high-risk children, encourage a "buddy system" of mentoring, and offer students many other options they need to stick it out in school.

Ray Cross, a University of Montana law professor and a member of the North Dakota's Three Affiliated Tribes, said there has long been an uneasy relationship between education, especially as defined by the federal government, and Indian people. While "learn to earn" has been the federal credo, relocation policies, boarding schools, related cultural disruption and insensitive educational bureaucracies have all left negative connotations.

Early-day efforts to education Indian people primarily focused on assimilating "American Indians into Indian Americans," said Cross, a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Yale University School of Law. But, he added, institutions involved in tribal education are slowly moving toward seeing their work as also being important for shaping young tribal citizens who will not only learn how to earn a living and think critically, but also to participate in broader tribal and non-tribal democracies.

Cross had special praise for the drafters of the 1972 Montana Constitution, which not only addresses equality in education but also spells out the importance of preserving and enhancing the unique cultural heritage of American Indians. While some say the constitutional promises are illegitimate and incoherent, Cross disagrees.

"It calls for new ways of thinking," he said of the document that defines the legal and moral parameters of the state.

Conference participants also took part in various activities at the state Capitol, where legislators have so far shot down bills to encourage the hiring of more Indian teachers, fund the Montana Indian Education for All program, provide money for non-beneficiary students at tribal colleges and raise the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18.

On April 1, the Legislature's seven Indian lawmakers held a news conference to point out that nearly all of their bills, especially those that contain money, have been killed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Each tribally related bill that's been tabled was outlined on cardboard tombstones.

On the brighter side, however, a House measure carried by Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, that would mandate a comprehensive study of the state's Indian drop-out problems appears likely to be approved by the full Legislature. The proposed two-year study would include a strategic plan for improving retention rates. Findings and recommendations would then be reviewed during the 2005 legislative session.