On May 27, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn, visited the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, to talk with students, faculty and administration on the unique challenges facing Native communities in achieving educational attainment. As a part of the President’s Generation Indigenous (“Gen I”) initiative, the visit continues the 2015 Native Youth Listening Tour which commenced in February with previous visits to Salt River Elementary and the Gila River Crossing Community schools in Arizona.
Joined by U.S. Senator James Lankford (R-OK), U.S. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), and Director of the Bureau of Indian Education Dr. Charles “Monty” Roessel, Jewell and Washburn toured the school to assess both the difficulties and the successes of the 144-year-old boarding school located in the Anadarko Basin of southwestern Oklahoma.
Jewell, who chairs the White House Council on Native American Affairs, said that one of the goals in overhauling the Bureau of Indian Education is to transform the agency into a “capacity builder” and “service provider” among Native communities, many of whom have the lowest educational attainment and highest poverty rates in the country. These initiatives were part of the Blueprint for Reform, which was released in June 2014 by the Administration to address the crisis in Indian education and strengthen the critical education needs of Native students.
“We have four boarding schools that are open to all tribes, so it’s important that we deal with the ‘whole child,’” Jewell said. “Therefore, we want to provide wrap-around services from across the government, including Homeland Security, the USDA and other agencies to help these boarding schools and their kids to help them compete in today’s economy while staying true to their Indian roots.”
Because nearly one-third of Indian children live below the poverty line, the improvement of educational and economic outcomes have been named as top priorities in Indian country by the Obama administration. Riverside Indian School, which serves approximately 700 American Indian/Alaska Native students from across the country in grades 4-12, is notable for the fact that nearly one-quarter of its population includes students with special needs, many of whom are sent to Anadarko from other BIE boarding schools because of the lack of resources to facilitate Individualized Education Plans, commonly known as “IEPs.” Currently, officials say funding for special education at the boarding schools only covers services during the school day, but that they are working to increase funding for students who may also need assistance after school hours or in the dorms.
According to Dr. Roessel, Riverside also works closely with the Oklahoma City area Indian Health Service to address the mental health needs of the students through both face-to-face therapy sessions, as well as “telemedicine,” which helps eliminate barriers medical help in many remote areas in Indian country.
Additionally, Riverside employs five non-academic counselors that work in the dormitories who provide drug and alcohol and mental health services to students.
School officials say that Riverside works with the local Anadarko Indian Health Center to provide a wide range of medical services to the students, including immunizations, dental health, vision, hearing and diabetes screenings, among others, at the annual health fair held at the beginning of each school year.
One of the highlights of Wednesday’s visit was to bring awareness to Riverside’s critical infrastructural needs. School officials are seeking funding for new facilities for the elementary school, which consists of used temporary portable buildings that have been in place for an average of 20 years and are particularly vulnerable during severe weather in Oklahoma. One of the dormitories for the elementary school was built in 1934 and has issues with mold and decay that is common among buildings of that era, which may contribute to asthma and other health issues for the students.
As a part of the cross-government approach, Wednesday’s tour also included a roundtable discussion with the White House Rural Council, which was moderated by senior policy adviser Doug O’Brien. Last week, the Council released Opportunity for All: Fighting for Rural Child Poverty, to highlight the aggressive new efforts and private-sector partnerships to address rural and tribal child poverty.
According to O’Brien, one of the purposes of the Rural Council is to identify and launch the next steps for the plan in four key areas:
Increased flow of capital to rural areas, job creation, and workforce development; the expansion of telecommunications, renewable energy, and new markets for rural communities; increased access to quality health care, education, and housing, and particularly in persistent poverty counties and tribal areas; and the expansion of outdoor opportunities and economic growth.
Students Precious Pedraza and William Edmo opened the Rural Council roundtable by speaking candidly about the problems they have faced in their lives and why Riverside has been so critical to them in providing hope and stability.
After Pedraza’s mother died when she was in the fourth grade, she was placed in foster care. At her request, she was sent to Riverside, to which she referred to as her home and its community as her family, a sentiment echoed by nearly all of the students at Wednesday's events.
For Jewell, the Native Youth Listening Tour was about more than just ticking off a checklist of bureaucratic "to-dos."
“What I learned here today is the commitment of the staff in providing them opportunities that they may not have had otherwise,” said Jewell. “So it's great to see young faces here who are graduating—some have been here just a couple of years, some have been here for their entire school lives—recognizing that this is their family. And I think they now feel a sense of opportunity and hope because of the great examples they've been given about the value of education. It's been a heartwarming visit, it's been a visit that helps remind all of us about the challenges that some of these young people face.