Oksale teaching program graduates first class

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BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Oksale. In the native Lummi tongue, it means teacher. To Native school teacher wannabes in the Pacific Northwest, it refers to the Northwest Indian College's Oksale Native Teacher Preparation Program on the Lummi Indian Reservation.

For Native American students across the nation, Oksale spells more Indian teachers coming their way.

The first graduating class of the Oksale Native Teacher Preparation Program was small - only six students, but the accomplishment was large, and the future impact in Indian country incalculable.

Twenty-six students started the curriculum in 1997. Plagued with administrative problems, the program gained and lost three directors and 20 students in three years. But, as Oksale student teacher supervisor Jan Super points out, the numbers only point up how difficult it is for many Native Americans to get through a program like this.

"Most of our students are not fresh out of college," says Super, who also is an instructor and advisor. "They didn't go from high school straight into college. For most of them, it took three or four years after high school, whether they finished or not, to decide that they wanted to go to college."

Some of the Oksale students had to prepare for and take their high school General Educational Development exams and then study for two years to get an associate degree before they could enter the program. Many had children and were single working moms and dads while going to school full time.

The Oksale Native Teacher Preparation Program had no any easy start. Accredited to grant only two-year associate degrees, Northwest staff searched for years for a way to have a teacher education program on the Lummi Reservation campus. Eventually a partnership was developed with Washington State University, more than 300 miles away in Pullman. It is the only partnership program in the state that offers a bachelor's degree in education combined with Washington State Teacher Certification in Elementary Education.

Some concessions had to be made in the program. Attendance had to be more flexible than in most schools. Classes were scheduled from 4:30 to 6 p.m. five days a week and two students attended via conference calls.

The students who finished the two-year course were those dedicated to the vision of making a difference in the lives of students, Native and non-Native alike. They had a lot of support from the staff at Oksale along the way. Understanding, consideration and going the extra mile made all the difference, they say.

"One of the first things I did was set up a seminar on professionalism in the workplace and how important it is to look professional. You know, nice dresses for the women, suits for the guys, very little jewelry and makeup" says Super. "And then it hit me, 'These people don't have the budget to go out and buy new wardrobes for student teaching.'"

Instead of throwing up her hands and saying, 'Oh, well,' Super got on the phone and the Internet and contacted teachers at the university with a plea for appropriate clothing for the students. Within weeks all the students were completely outfitted. The difference the clothes made, in some cases, was astounding, Super says.

One student, Thomas Sternberg, was voted the Metamorphosis Award by students and teachers for the greatest change made by an individual in the program. In this case, the clothes definitely helped make the man.

"In six months, he went from wearing dreadlocks down to his waist and little knitted caps, to a suit," Super says. "He actually came up, all worried one day, and asked me whether it was OK to wear a diagonal-striped tie with a vertical pinstripe suit."

Not all difficulties were physical in nature, or so easily handled. Nancy Bob, a Lummi member, said the hardest thing she had to face in the program were the many differences of opinion that flared up between the struggling administration and the equally hard-pressed students over the years.

"The people that were actually running the program were saying, ' Well, this is how it should be,' and they weren't considering us a lot of the time," Bob says. "And we said, 'Wait a minute. What about us?'

"That taught us students valuable lessons in how to be a teacher. Because no matter what happens in the classroom, students' input and involvement is always needed - no matter what decisions are being made. ... I had to go through it in order to actually realize that."

Despite the growing pains, students are quick to point out good things about the Oksale program.

"The thing I appreciated about this program was that we invited a lot of speakers and elders, people who have a lot of knowledge ... to come in and share their knowledge with students in the program ," Flavian Point says. "The students got to learn from people like that, and the instructors got to learn a lot listening to them, too."

Like most graduating classes, the students are quickly scattering in all directions. Two graduates from the program have teaching contracts from the Chief Leschi School near Tacoma, Wash. Point, a student from British Columbia, is deciding which graduate program to attend for his master's degree, and Bob is waiting to hear from the Lummi Tribal School administration on her application to teach third grade in her reservation school.

And, like all schools, the Oksale program is already gearing up for the next tide of students. A new administrator, Vivian Delgado from Durango, Colo., is coming on board in July, and 15 students have signed up for the program starting in January 2001.

In the meantime, Super says she's going to be out beating the bushes, talking to state school administrators and teachers, lining up student teaching positions for the next group.