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Idaho's first Indian education coordinator is on the job

BOISE, Idaho - Fifteen years ago, six Indian nations in Idaho endorsed a set of goals for improving American Indian education in the state.

In June, one of the primary recommendations from the 1992 report was set in motion: the Idaho State Department of Education installed its first Indian education coordinator.

Mary Jane Oatman-Wak Wak started work June 18 to improve Native student achievement across the state, and will serve as a liaison between the department and tribal leaders.

''My hope is that this person will be able to go around to the public schools, the ones on the reservations and even the ones that have pockets of Native kids around the state, and really be able to find out what's going on,'' said Coeur d'Alene Tribal Chairman Chief Allan.

Oatman-Wak Wak is a member of the Nez Perce tribe. She first set out to be an attorney, but college courses in the Nez Perce language inspired her to work for cultural preservation and education. She was working on a master's degree in anthropology at the University of Idaho when the state Department of Education hired her earlier in June.

''If our students are having problems with reading comprehension, a lot of times it's because of what they are reading,'' Oatman-Wak Wak said.

Idaho tribal leaders and educators at tribal schools ''are bringing up the fact that we lack in our history and social studies curriculum an accurate reflection of our nation,'' she said.

Native students across the United States have lagged behind their peers in test scores and high school completion rates. In Idaho, 32 percent of American Indian third-graders scored below grade level on a recent Idaho Reading Indicator test, compared to 17 percent of students overall. Native dropout rates in the 2005 - '06 school year were 5.5 percent, twice that of white students. The American Indian dropout rate in Idaho has improved in recent years, down from 7.6 percent in 2002 - '03.

''You can see their reading scores, you can see the dropout rate, you can see how they perform on the ISAT [Idaho Standards Achievement Test],'' said Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. ''And there's a need to focus more effort on those children and I think by creating this position within the department ... we'll be able to open lines of communication between educators and tribal leaders and focus on the progress that Indian children are making in public education.''

Oatman-Wak Wak will visit schools in Indian country to get a clear picture of what is going on with Native students, who make up about 2 percent of Idaho students, and she will try to bring the concerns of the tribes to the state capital.

''We've got their attention,'' said Bryan Samuels, principal at Lapwai High School on the Nez Perce Reservation and chairman of the Idaho Indian Education Committee. ''Until the test scores become equal to other parts of the state, they cannot close their eyes to this problem.''

But raising test scores and increasing cultural relevancy in schools can often be at odds under the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping education reform initiative started during the Bush administration.

A National Indian Education Association official testified before Congress in late April that the U.S. Department of Education had advised tribal schools to de-emphasize cultural coursework in favor of reading and math. A nationwide study the association conducted found that educators across Indian country were being pushed to teach standardized test content, leaving less time for culturally relevant lessons.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribal School, one of two federal Bureau of Indian Education schools in Idaho, has lots of cultural activities, but fewer than before.

''We're concerned about focusing on our ISAT scores more than that,'' said Bob Sobotta Sr., principal and superintendent of the school.

The stringent academic reporting requirements of No Child Left Behind helped highlight the problems with education in Indian country, Samuels said. But the act has never been fully funded.

''The difficulty with No Child Left Behind is it's pretty much weighing the cow but not feeding the cow,'' said Jon Reyhner, a professor at Northern Arizona University's College of Education.

Luna, who sold industrial scales prior to his entry into education, strongly believes in the data-driven approach to education reform.

But he also said he shares Oatman-Wak Wak's vision to ''increase the Indian people's love for education and helping them understand the rewards of quality education.'' And he said he is willing to ask the state for more funding if she identifies needed programs for Indian country.

Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and Washington all have Indian education offices within their state education departments. Montana recently expanded its program to include teaching accurate Native history throughout the school system.

Oatman-Wak Wak said Idaho needs more Indian teachers, particularly teachers qualified in Native languages. She also wants to work on curricula to make them better reflect Indian students' lives.

Oatman-Wak Wak's grandparents never went to high school and her parents did not value education when they were younger, she said. But when she went off to college, both her mother and grandmother came with her and earned degrees.

Attitudes about education are changing in Indian country, Oatman-Wak Wak said, and so are attitudes within the education system.

''It takes us Indian people being part of the education system,'' she said.