The Fight to Improve Indian Education Can Be a Tough One

The people running Indian schools and Indian education programs often get fired if they do too good a job. Not always, but more than you think.

The people running Indian schools often get fired if they do too good a job. It does not always happen, but it happens a lot.

One of the most recent is the decision by the school board of Oakland, California to close their best school. The American Indian Charter Public School was founded as a middle school in the 1990s to serve the Indian students in the district. When I visited it in 1997, it was a joke. The students weren’t learning, the school was in crisis, the enrollment was down to about 70 students or fewer. On the day I visited, there were no more than 40 students there.

In 1999 the school hired Dr. Ben Chavis to be the principal. Within one year he had turned the school around. Catching the Dream gave him an attendance improvement grant that year, and he used it to the fullest. He would not let students miss school; someone went to get them. Two years ago the annual daily attendance for the year was 98 percent, the highest rate I have ever seen.

He revised the curriculum to include 90 minutes of language instruction every day; it was the first class every day—for all students. Pretty soon Latino, Asian, black, and white students wanted to attend because the school was so good. He proved that all students can learn. He also proved that all parents want their children to have a good education and that ethnicity has nothing to do with this.

Five years ago they added a high school to the program, and now have 1,200 students enrolled. The percentage of Indian students has dropped dramatically. Ben told me a few weeks ago that there were only 120 Indian students in Oakland.

Students have performed to the top; it is now ranked the 36th best high school in the nation. So why did the school board vote to close the school? Chavis says it was because the school was taking $20 million of their money, and they didn’t like it. It didn’t matter that two governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, visited the school, endorsed it, and praised it.

The school board fired Chavis five years ago. Now it accuses him of taking money from the school; he allegedly rented space in one of the buildings he owns to the school at below-market rates. His response to the school board—if I have done something wrong, charge me with it, but don’t take a superior education away from the students. It is now on appeal to the Alameda County school board to stand behind the Oakland board decision or reverse it.

The school is nothing short of a miracle. It would break my heart to see it close. We now have 40 Exemplary Programs in Indian Education (EPIEs) out there. And believe me, folks, they are hard to come by. When Catching the Dream started the EPIE movement in 1988, there were no exemplary Indian schools to be found. It took us five years to find one. In two cases, Kayenta in Arizona and Wellpinit in Washington, we helped them get going. I worked with both of them for seven years to change them around.

It’s a hard business. Most of the time, the school people don’t believe it can be done, so they don’t buy into it, and nothing happens. We have worked with 25 of the 40 current EPIEs. It takes about seven years for them to turn around. In fact, only about 15 percent get it and do the things they need to do to improve. No improvement happens in the other 85 percent; they just keep sailing along. Their students keep failing, because they don’t do the right things.

The second most egregious example of improvement leading to failure was at Tohatchi, New Mexico. Frank Kattnig got hired there in 1984. He started as an English teacher but became a career counselor. He was determined to get kids ready for college. He started off with a bang. College attendance before Frank started was 15 percent; he raised it to 55 percent his first year. Within six or eight more years, he had raised college-bound students to 90 percent and the students had won $1.2 million in scholarships. When Kattnig retired in 1999 after 15 years, he had the highest college-going rate in the state of New Mexico, and they had won all kind of awards. (Related story: “Navajo Students and Nation President Remember Tohatchi Teacher and Counselor)

What most people don’t know is that he was fired the second year he was there. Students went off to college, got little help, and called Kattnig to tell them how to find housing, how to set up study groups, and how to complete their financial aid applications. I was there when he would get up at 4 a.m., fix his breakfast, and be out the door in his own vehicle to visit a house 50 miles away. He would knock on the door, telling them: “This is the last day to get your college application in, the last day to submit the financial aid form, the last day to submit this scholarship application.” He made sure they got things done. He was hard on them, and they loved it.

Students would reverse the phone charges. After the bill got up to $800, the administration fired him for mismanagement of funds. He stayed fired for a week; the parents overruled the administration and got him hired back again. Kattnig was forced out, even though the students and parents loved him.

He remained there from 1984 to 1999, a total of 15 years. Then he retired, and the program fell apart. In the 14 years since, they have had 18 or more counselors in the position. When I tried to meet with one of them, he was at the same time trying to install a new computer program. I don’t think he heard anything I said.

A similar thing happened at Kayenta. I was asked to help put a comprehensive school program at the high school. The students are 98 percent Navajo. They ride up to 70 miles each way to get to school in the morning. Jim Lytle was the dean of students. He and his assistant, a Navajo named Julius Young, made sure students were in school every day. The dropout rate fell from 65 percent to 40 percent, and would have dropped lower if the program could have been kept in place.

Beverly Pigman, a tough Navajo lady, had started insisting in 1984 that the schools could not get any better if they did not insist on attendance standards. They caught heck for a few years, but by the time I came along in 1986, the attendance program was moving right along. They soon were able to reprogram this money to make sure students were getting all the coursework done to finish on time and with honors.

I did the data on test scores, which showed that 27 percent of ninth graders were entering four or more grade levels below ninth grade. Bob Roundtree, the principal, insisted that the school had to have a reading department. Pretty soon there were five reading teachers. They took all the really low students and put them into half a day of reading. Within five years they had basically eliminated this problem.

Beverly got fired from the Indian committee at the public school. Then she went on the Indian committee at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school and brought about similar changes there. Of course, she had to take a lot of guff, but she was tough and persevered.

Gilbert Sombrero, the Indian education guy at Kayenta, also had to take grief from the old school people. He eventually got fired from Indian Ed finished out his career working in the cafeteria. He was one of the most talented people I ever met.

Louie Jackson, the best hire I made at Bacone College in Oklahoma, did a great job there for 20 years as the dean of students. But the new white president bumped him, and he went to Sequoyah High School in the same position, and has performed magnificently. Bacone’s loss is Sequoyah’s gain. Jackson is still there.

Larry Parker went to Umonhon Nation School in Nebraska 15 years ago with the charge to turn the school around. It was a mess. He raised the percent of students reading on grade level from 11 percent to 77 percent in five years. He got most of it cleaned up, but the political school board let him go after 11 years. He had the highest performing Indian school in the state.

He then went to St. Francis. In four years he made dramatic improvements in the elementary school, but barely got started at the Middle school and the high school. Then the board there let him go, and he left for three years in Frazer, Montana. They made AYP the first year, but the board said they would have made it any (they wouldn’t have) and let him go. He is now bringing the Chevak Schools in Alaska around.

The same thing happened to me at Bacone College. After three years we had made some serious strides toward improving that college. The board wanted to move it from junior college status to full senior college status. But the move upset so many people who were comfortable in the junior college level that the faculty ended up firing me. So even though I took the guff for making the change 40 years ago, no one there has yet thanked me. I doubt I’ll ever get that thanks.

The people who improve schools don’t always get fired though. Richard DeLorenzo stayed at Chugach School District in Alaska his whole career. They won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2001, the highest award in the U.S. When he retired, Bob Crumley took over, and Chugach is still the best school in Alaska.

Reid Riedlinger stayed at Wellpinit for 15 years, from 1988 to 2004. They won awards and recognition from the United States, Italy, and Japan. Unfortunately, when he retired, the school fell back into its old ways.

Sig Boloz stayed at Ganado Primary School for 20 years, winning awards from Catching the Dream, the state of Arizona, and the White House. He retired, and is now a professor at Northern Arizona University. Greg Owens has taught calculus to Native students at the University of Alaska for 25 years now, and he is still there, thank goodness.

Pete Zah stayed at Arizona State University from 1995 until he retired in 2009. He made more improvement there than any college in the nation in that 15 years.

I just wish we had a whole lot more people who would improve Indian schools. It’s not that hard—if you do the right thing. If Navajo Prep and Wellpinit can send all their students—100 percent—on to college, other schools can, too.