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Education Special: Spokane Tribal School excels

WELLPINIT, Wash. - The Spokane Tribal School at Wellpinit continues to achieve scholastic results that would be the envy of nearly any school in the country. Every student who enrolled in the senior class last fall graduated this spring. Furthermore, other than one student who is entering military service, every graduate will be attending a college or university this fall. The high percentage has become the norm although the number of students has risen.

This increase has been, in part, due to a home alliance program. This is an at-risk, dropout program whereby if a student drops out of another school district they will be incorporated into this program. Staff members evaluate their transcripts to see what credits are needed for high school graduation. They then visit the students in their homes, provide a computer, and offer needed courses online. Success has been excellent and has boosted graduation numbers above the number actually attending daily classes at Wellpinit School.

Daily attendance is also very high. High school rates range in the 89-92 percentile bracket. Elementary students are even higher at 94-97 percent with middle school students between the other two groups.

Wellpinit students have also excelled, particularly in math, in the national ITBS tests. From K through 12, classes here range from the 50th percentile to the 80th and even 90th percentile brackets in mathematics. Reading scores are lower but no scores rate below the high 30s.

Such successes were not always the norm. School superintendent Reid Riedlinger arrived at the school in 1990 following work in various Eskimo villages as a crisis intervention councilor and a school principal. Test scores in the early 90s generally fell below the 20th percentile in national tests and some into the single digits. Riedlinger quickly gives credit to his staff for the improvement in subsequent years but together they saw the needs and proceeded to meet those needs.

Students now receive twice-daily classes in both mathematics and reading and the improved test scores document improvements. Next year a Junior ROTC program will be installed and required of freshmen as a way to promote leadership. The goal is to get students to look towards higher careers and to provide the confidence needed to achieve those goals.

Reid has attempted to hire teachers with Indian backgrounds. Many staff members are either of Indian ancestry or are married to an Indian. A Spokane tribal member was hired as a full-time cultural teacher with emphasis particularly on Spokane culture but concerning northwest tribes in general. The students themselves all have some Indian ancestry. The Salish language is also part of the curriculum.

Wellpinit will also be the first reservation school in the country to offer an I.B., or International Baccalaureate, degree. This is an advanced placement program for students who aspire to attend major schools of the world. It almost guarantees acceptance to any school, anywhere. Graduation requirements are rigorous. For example, the State of Washington requires 19 credits to graduate, Wellpinit requires 28 credits to graduate, and the I.B. degree will require 35 credits. Among other things, it requires four years of two different languages. English is obviously one language and the others offered include Latin and French. The Salish language is encouraged but does not count, as it isn't an internationally-accepted language.

Wellpinit is currently a candidate school for the I.B. degree. It normally takes two or three years until the criteria are met to implement the full standing for this degree. When that happens, Wellpinit will likely be the third school in the State of Washington and the first reservation school in the country with this designation.

It's a success story and the accomplishments keep piling up. Nathaniel Samuels, a Spokane tribal member and 2003 graduate of Wellpinit, perhaps typifies the recent graduates. Samuels will be attending Whitworth College in Spokane this fall on a full scholarship and is spending the summer as a teaching tutor in the summer school program at Wellpinit. He plans to get a dual major in biology and history and hopes to return home in the future as a teacher.

Samuels credits successes at Wellpinit by saying that "everyone is willing to help. Everyone knows each other. It's a close-knit group and we all get along well." When you combine that with a full schedule of classes, a staff that cares and a superintendent who is willing to try new things, good things happen.