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Martin: BIA-funded schools are unlocking doors to the future

When parents daydream about the many pathways their children can follow to a successful future, it becomes clear that a quality education is the most reliable. Safe schools, thoughtful curriculum and dedicated educators, combined with involved parents, set the groundwork for future learning and -- most importantly -- personal achievement.

Among American Indian families, however, there has always been a concern that many students have been left behind. Children attending suburban public schools are better prepared to attain solid achievement test scores and they often go to class in modern and technologically equipped facilities relatively close to home. At the same time the schools of Indian country have struggled to provide a basic education in safe facilities. Children often travel great distances -- sometimes by horseback and four-wheel-drive school bus vehicles -- just to go to class each day.

The Federal government runs two school systems that are separate from the local public, parochial and private schools that you may know and have attended. One Federal school system is dedicated to the children of men and women in uniform and operated by the Department of Defense. The second is a network of schools on Indian reservations across the United States -- 185 schools funded by the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs across 23 states. Total Federal support for these schools is in excess of $730 million. As you read this, some 48,000 Indian students are getting ready to return to these remote, BIA-funded schools.

President Bush has marshaled the nation behind his mission of leaving no child behind in the education of our young people. At the Department of the Interior, we have adjusted this mission. We are determined to make sure no Indian child is left behind as we provide for accountability and assessment in our classrooms with the goal of increased student performance and achievement. We have convened a panel of Indian educators and national leaders in the development of regulations that implement the recently passed "No Child Left Behind Act" at our schools.

We are also implementing President Bush's comprehensive strategy to improve the physical quality of Indian schools. The President has requested $292.6 million in the coming year for school construction and modernization and we plan to dedicate 10 new schools across the system in the coming year. This is a significant step forward. We are also bringing the most modem tools of the information age to these remote facilities, ensuring that these students' education includes the same technological foundation that is found at sister schools -- public and private -- across America. At San Felipe Pueblo Elementary School in New Mexico, for example, a state-of-the-art classroom has been developed that has sparked an interest among students in science, math, electronics and engineering. The school's Aeronautics Education laboratory, created in cooperation with NASA, is an electronically enhanced, computerized classroom that puts cutting-edge technology in the hands of Indian students.

The key is to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future. The Department's commitment to that mission doesn't stop at high school graduation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also directly operates two post-secondary institutions and provides funding to 25 tribally-controlled colleges and universities. We are taking a new look at how we can work together with these schools and create new jobs for the future. On behalf of Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, I am working to integrate the post-secondary course offerings at these schools with our own agencies' workforce planning needs.

The BIA is committed to Indian preference hiring; at last count more than 80 percent of the agency's workforce was hired under Indian preference. I have launched an effort to assist tribal colleges and universities to offer coursework to train future BIA employees. Since many of these employees serve their own tribal members at BIA agency offices, this is a win-win proposition for the Federal government, for the tribe and for young people who are looking for a stable career close to home.

At Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, for example, the Department of the Interior is supporting the development of a new curriculum in records management that will greatly enhance the Department's own ability to use best practices in trust asset record keeping. The expected result is a fully trained Native workforce skilled in the principles of quality record management. Ultimately, a National Archives site some 30-minutes from Haskell is expected to become a repository for the nation's Indian trust asset records, closing the book on what has been historically a disparate record keeping system.

Working with Haskell, and other Indian universities through distance learning, training future employees to manage the Department's trust asset records is only one example of how we can develop other cooperative efforts with other schools. We are developing curriculum, coursework and specialized training to meet the long-range workforce needs of the real world. By increasing their level of specialized training, Indian students today will have stronger professional credentials tomorrow to enter the Federal, Tribal or commercial employment sectors.

This month, students across the nation are preparing to return to the classroom or begin their first year of college. Future leaders such as 17-year-old Cory Blankenship, who recently graduated from the BIA-funded Cherokee Central High School in Cherokee, North Carolina, serve as shining examples to young Indian students. Cory's school achievement and leadership abilities have earned him the full academic Roy H. Park Scholarship to attend North Carolina State University at Raleigh this fall.

From preschool to college, students at BIA-funded schools are setting the course with an education that will prepare them to be the leaders of tomorrow. A quality education is our goal. It's the best pathway to a better future for all young Americans.

Aurene Martin, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior -- Indian Affairs, is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and previously served as senior counsel to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.