When Bob Roundtree left Ada, Oklahoma in 1987 to become principal of one of the largest high schools on the Navajo Reservation, he thought he could do the same things at Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, Arizona that he could do at Ada. He learned quickly that he could not. He went to his boss, Dr. Joe Martin, who agreed that they needed to improve the school. Dr. Martin gave him free rein to shake things up.
Bob found that 98 percent of the students were Navajo. Only the few sons and daughters of teachers were non-Indian. All the Navajo students spoke Navajo, and many of them did not speak English well. When he looked at Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills scores, he found that vocabulary was the lowest section of the test. He knew he would be in trouble unless he did something quickly.
So he looked at the reading scores and found that 27 percent of the freshman students had scored four or more grade levels below ninth. In other words, one out of four students could not read well enough to do ninth grade work.
Roundtree teamed up with Gilbert Sombrero, a local Navajo who was running the Indian Education Act (IEA) program. They decided the students had to learn how to read before they could do high school level work. So they designed a reading program that took up half the day, but did not put a stigma on the students. Students would be in regular classes half the day, and in reading the other half. They took Title I funds and created a Reading Department, to the dismay of some faculty. These faculty members did not want to have the onus of a Special Education type of program at the school. But the two persevered.
They also had to ensure students were in school every day. With the help of the Dean of Students, Jim Lytle, and his assistant Julius Young, they put a heavy emphasis on getting them to school. Immediately after the roll was taken first thing in the morning, Young went to pick up any missing students. This meant there were days he drove 70 miles one way to pick up a student, and then 70 miles back.
“I found them hiding in the arroyos, out on the range, everywhere,” Young said. He was another local Navajo who had his job rewritten to put a heavy emphasis on daily attendance. Within a few weeks, students learned they would not be allowed to play hooky, so they gave up and started catching the bus. Lytle and Young raised the daily attendance rate from 80 percent to 92 percent and held it there for the next decade.
It worked. Within seven years, test scores on reading, math, and language improved from the eighth grade level to the 11th grade level. Monument Valley High School went on to win awards from the state and nationally for its improvement. It led the way to the development of some 39 Exemplary Programs that now exist in the United States, according to Catching the Dream, the sponsor of the Exemplary Institute. These programs exist at Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska; Cass Lake in Minnesota; Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico and at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, among many other places.
The type of improvements that Roundtree, Lytle, Sombrero, and Young made at Monument Valley will be featured at the Exemplary Institute on April 25-26, 2013. The event, meant to teach education professionals how to prepare exemplary students, will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico two days before the nation’s largest powwow, the Gathering of Nations. The two keynote speakers, Bob Crumley, superintendent of Chugach School District, and Stacy Phelps, the program coordinator of the South Dakota GEAR UP Program. Both have won numerous awards for their programs.
“There will be twenty workshops at the EI this year,” said James Lujan, the board president for Catching he Dream and former Taos Pueblo governor. “They will cover everything from how to implement a top reading program to how to teach calculus to Indian kids. We have used this approach to hold the EI very successfully for 14 years.”
For more information about the Exemplary Institute, visit the Catching the Dream website.
Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream. Founded in 1986, CTD awards scholarships to high potential Indian college students. It also works to improve Indian schools. His next book will be called “The American Indian Dropout.” It will be published in early 2013. He has written books on Indian leaders, racism in Indian country, exemplary Indian schools, and how to write winning proposals in the past 40 years.