LAWRENCE, Kan. - The new director of the Office of Indian Education Programs for the BIA, William Mehojah says he will push for a leadership role in preparing "our schools for the 21st century ...in an era of accountability."
Mehojah was visiting Haskell Indian Nations University to meet with the Board of Regents and newly appointed Haskell President Dr. Karen Swisher.
"The era of high standards is also here. We are a part of that," he said, adding he wants to see Native American and Alaskan students excel in schools and plans to make sure they have the support they need to achieve their educational goals.
He wants to make sure that schools, parents and school boards can all work together to provide the best education possible for Native students.
Esther Geary, dean of students at Haskell has worked with Mehojah at both the Central Office in Washington, D.C., and in her current position and believes there will be a marked improvement in bureau education programs throughout the country with Mehojah at the helm.
"I think its great that he has gotten the position. He has a lot of experience in different divisions in education and has made a commitment to improve various components. I believe that Haskell will benefit greatly by this."
Geary went on to note that Mehojah is not just an administrator, but understands first hand the problems and issues in bureau schools. His son was a student at Haskell, and his father, who recently died, was a Haskell alumni. Two other relatives who died in the early years at Haskell Institute are buried in the Haskell Cemetery.
Mehojah's sense of humor and easy-going manner, has put those around him at ease, but doesn't diminish the effectiveness of his work.
"What we are trying to do is make sure that our schools are performing at a real high level that starts at early childhood and continues throughout life. We want to hold schools accountable for the results." Mehojah said.
Asked about how his office would assist those living off reservations and tribal lands, Mehojah replied, "Of course those children are attending public schools. The statistics I have see are 85 percent are enrolled in public schools, 10 percent in bureau-funded schools and 5 percent are enrolled in parochial schools.
"We provide special needs such as tutoring programs and classroom supplies. In addition, I think we can provide curriculum ideas and even materials Online, that a lot of those public school teachers with Indian children in their classrooms could have access to," he said.
"We receive a lot of calls from public school teachers wanting to know how to work with Native American children in their classrooms. They want to know how to integrate Native American culture into their lesson plans.
Mehojah said effort is directed to a national policy about Native American education, which will come out of the White House. "A result of those meetings is the research agenda; the first meeting regarding that will be in Albuquerque in May. We also have some pilot schools that we have recently begun in public and bureau funded schools."
Mehojah said he doesn't want to see urban American Indians falling through the cracks of the system and wants to see more OIEP involvement with state education departments to make sure that Native American students aren't being left behind or forgotten within the public school systems.
He called for the facts about tribal sovereignty to be taught in public schools in to educate the general population of the United States and has been working with other educators around the country to initiate such an effort.
"I think there is a real lack of knowledge from the general public about the American Indian relationship with the federal and state government. They need to understand that it is based on treaties. People come to Washington and they have questions about Native Americans and the questions are very na?ve." Mehojah said. "We need to educate the general public about ourselves. It's actually happening in some locations, but not nearly enough."
Noting Haskell's growth from a boarding school to a university, Mehojah reflected on its direction in the 21st century. "Haskell is one of the first boarding schools which was founded for American Indian children. Many of those other institutions are gone, but Haskell still exists. I that it has a special place in Indian education and not just historically. It started out as a boarding school; recently it has become a university and moved away from its vocational roots. With the new academic programs that are being offered it is now blossoming as an institution."