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Preparing American Indian Students for College

Are American Indian students truly prepared for college?

I forced my way onto the Minority Panel of The College Board in 1979 and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The president, George Hanford, is still my mentor. Every time I go to Boston I have lunch or dinner with him.

At the second meeting of the panel, George asked if we could spell out what students need to know and be able to do when they enter college to be successful. Out of the 18 people on the panel, 17 said yes, and one radical Puerto Rican said no. He was outvoted and never came back. I stayed on the panel for six years. When I left, I was the only original person still on it. It was without a doubt the most talented panel I have ever served on.

The panel had been started by George and Alfredo de los Santos. Alfredo was vice chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix, which has several campuses. Alfredo was the person responsible for curriculum on all the campuses. On the way to the airport in 1979, he and George decided that the time was right for the board to look into minority affairs.

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I had written to George a year earlier saying I was available to work with the board on Indian higher education. I had just been hired as president of Bacone College, with the mandate to upgrade Bacone from a junior college offering Associate of Arts degrees to a senior college offering bachelor’s degrees. But when the panel was formed, they forgot Indians, which is typical of many big organizations.

When George was on the initial board of the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy a decade later, they also forgot Indians. But George called me in 1988 saying I had to do a symposium on testing and its effect on Native Americans. So Pat Locke and I organized the symposium, an all-day event at the University of New Mexico, and prepared the lead paper for it. It is still the only meeting that featured the subject of academic testing and the effect testing has on American Indians.

The big education associations had no Indian programs at all, and most still don’t. Thus they ignore the huge disparities in education that Indians suffer from—high unemployment rates of 45 percent, very low test scores, a 50 percent dropout rate in high school, the lowest college entrance rate (only 17 percent), and the highest college dropout rate (82 percent).

George answered my letter, but when the Minority Panel was formed, it had no Indians on it. I raised hell with another letter to George. He had me to go for an interview with the director of the Southwest Office in San Antonio, and I passed. They put me on the panel. I was the token Indian for six years. When they decided they were done with me, they asked me to recommend a replacement. I gave them a dozen names, and they picked Dean Jackson, the president of Diné College.

Dean served on the panel until it was disbanded. When the former president of a black college in Atlanta was picked to replace George, he didn’t see the need for the Minority Panel, and let it die.

The original Minority Panel had the best minority scholars and researchers in the U.S. on it. Mary Francis Berry, Lloyd Bond, John U. Monro (our token white guy), and Leonard Valverde all were leading scholars.

We thought it was time for minorities to be in on the secrets of going to college. The sons and daughters of the doctors, dentists, lawyers, professors, business people, and other professionals got the secrets taught to them at home. But minorities don’t get that exposure. So putting it all down was a plus for us, I thought, and still do.

The Board proceeded to hold symposia in several places around the nation. At the end it developed a book called Academic Preparation for College. The book was published in 1983. When I checked a couple of years later, the book had sold over 800,000 copies. If the New York Times had let that kind of book be included on its list of best sellers, it would have been on the list the whole time.

But I found out within the next few years that the book was not doing its job. It had made the gap between whites and minorities larger, not smaller. The reason was simple; the large urban districts had bought it by the tons. Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Houston, New Haven, and Miami had bought it by the hundreds. Dr. Billy Reagan, the superintendent of the Houston schools, told me he had bought several hundred copies of the book and given them out to all the schools in Houston.

The Indian reservation schools didn’t even know about it. When I had a little money after starting Catching the Dream in 1986, we bought 840 copies of the book and sent it to all the Indian high schools. But I don’t know what happened to them. When we checked the libraries and with the principals at three dozen schools a few years later, we could not find one copy of the book we had sent them. Did they trash it? I don’t know.

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And the reason they didn’t know about it was simple; Indian schools do not belong to The College Board. Only a couple of the 740 Indian schools are members. I have tried in my little way to get them to join, but have not been successful. They do not by and large think they are in the business of preparing Indian students for college. They are vocational schools.

The Board did a very strong follow-up on the book. They hired Dr. Adrienne Bailey out of the Chicago schools to develop a half dozen books on subject areas, including math, the arts, science, English, social studies, and foreign languages. She was hired to develop a whole new branch of The Board, academics. These six books have been available for 30 years now. To get your hands on any of these books, email store_help@collegeboard.org.

They put together a Council on Academic Affairs to guide the development of the subject area books. My friend and mentor, Dr. Henrietta Whiteman, was on this panel. Henri is now president of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal College and one of the top scholars in Indian country.

Over the next several years, Adrienne and her talented staff developed these subject area books, which go into detail about what students need to know and be able to do. I am guessing that not 10 of the 740 principals are familiar with these books. And they all should have them available and being used.

The data from The Board show that only 13 percent of Indian test takers of the SAT are in the academic track, compared to 39 percent of Asians and 29 percent of whites. Only 5 percent of Indians are taking calculus, compared to 30 percent of Asians. In a research study I did 15 years ago, I found that most of the 5 percent were in a tiny handful of the 740 Indian high schools. In other words, well over 95 percent of Indian schools do not offer calculus. Graduates of these schools going into engineering and science professions are way behind their peers when they get to college.

In a follow-up project, Quentin Jones ran a project funded by a foundation that quadrupled the number of Hispanic students attending college in Bexar County, Texas. (Bexar, a Spanish word, is pronounced “Bayer.”) The Minority Panel helped the young man assigned to write the proposal, who didn’t have a clue about what he was doing. Quentin did a report on the project, which was published, and I doubt anyone in Indian country is familiar with it. To see the project, email store_help@collegeboard.org.

It was a mentoring project. Quentin matched up each student with a mentor, who met with them on a regular basis. The project ran for five years, and was highly successful. We need mentoring projects in Indian country, but I have never heard of one.

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In another project of The Board, all students in the San Jose, California schools were required to take algebra in ninth grade. The results of this project were astounding as well. It was highly successful.

One of the reasons Indian students don’t do well in preparing for college is that they can’t read well. We have been making grants for reading from Catching the Dream for 22 years, and about 85 percent of them have been successful. The best ones raised test scores from the 15th percentile to the 75th and higher. We will make another 15 grants this year. But would you believe it is difficult to get schools to apply? We will mail out 3,000 notices this year, and probably will only get 20 applicants.

I got so worked up about this lack of reading that I wrote a book called Reading for College, which we published six years ago. It is a slow seller. But we keep plugging away.

We want all the schools to match what Betty Ojaye has done at Navajo Prep. For 20 years now they have sent over 80 percent of their graduates on to college. In 2004, they sent 100 percent on. Come on, people, I dare you to beat Betty.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream in Albuquerque. It is a scholarship and school improvement organization. CTD has 170 students on scholarship this year, but does not have enough applicants. His address is CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. His next book is called “The American Indian Dropout.”

This story was originally published September 6, 2014.