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Yocha-de-he; A school Apart

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BROOKS, Calif. - Driving up state route 16 in Northern California's scenic
Capay Valley you pass a run down one-room schoolhouse where members of the
Rumsey Rancheria were once taught. Continuing up the road among the
antiquated farmhouses and fruit orchards you pass a modern, multi-million
dollar casino that is hard to miss.

The building which has recently undergone a controversial expansion, houses
the Rumsey Band's Cache Creek casino. A little further up the road sits a
state of the art building that serves not only as a tribal community center
but also as a kind of modern version of the old one-room schoolhouse, known
as the Yocha-de-he Preparatory School.

Cache Creek casino has fueled a revolution of sorts among what was once one
of the poorer, more obscure tribes in the state. Lining the halls of the
community center are photos from Rumsey's past. Amidst photos of tribal
members from the early 20th century are pictures of decrepit plank board
shacks that stand in sharp contrast to the luxury homes visible from the
windows at the opposite side of the hall.

Yocha-de-he is the latest piece of the tribe's transformation and was one
of the pet projects of tribal Chairwoman Paula Lorenzo, who is a college
graduate and stressed the importance of education when the tribe's economic
fortunes blossomed.

"The tribe started the school because tribal kids were having trouble in
public schools. We think that this kind of independent education is
providing a solution," said Yocha-de-he Director Nancy Remington.

As its full name suggests, this is a private, non-religiously affiliated
preparatory school. Though now located within the community center,
Yocha-de-he began life in a trailer in what is now the casino parking lot
and if anything typifies the transformation the tribe is currently
experiencing.

The school specializes in the Montessori method of teaching, which was
created by Italian education pioneer Maria Montessori in the early 20th
century in which children are guided by teachers to learn according to
their own interests rather than be locked into a specific curriculum.

Most of Rumsey's school-age children attend Yocha-de-he and this year the
school has opened up to non-tribal members living in the Capay Valley
bringing the school's total to 15 students. The tribe as a whole has 24
adults and 29 children. According to the school's rules, Yocha-de-he must
maintain at least a 51 percent tribal majority so the number of open spots
depends on the number of tribal children in attendance.

The small class sizes are seen as a bonus to school staff who strongly
believe that individual attention, small class sizes and beginning very
young are the best ways to guarantee student success.

Though starting children early has been controversial as some parents worry
about loading too much upon young children, teacher Rebecca Plude explained
how the Montessori method seamlessly incorporates teaching to children's
activities.

"It's more about directed play and not giving undue stress," said Plude who
went on to demonstrate simple activities for children that seem like play
but actually have a learning purpose.

Remington said the school advertised only in a local post office and found
there was great interest from local non-Indian neighbors. The students were
then selected though a screening process by the National Association of
Independent Schools to determine which ones would best fit into the mold of
the school.

"The school's number one purpose, though, is to educate children of the
tribal community," Remington said.

Remington brings several years of private preparatory school experience to
her position. She formerly worked at a preparatory school in Sacramento
where she became acquainted with Rumsey attorney Howard Dickstein and took
over the school at the beginning of last school year.

The school's program is roughly parallel with a Kindergarten through eighth
grade education, though the children usually begin school earlier and are
not broken up into the traditional grades.

When the children reach high school age they are then assessed by their
parents, the school and the tribe as to what would work best for them.
Remington said it usually involves trying to place the children in a
college preparatory boarding school.

Though the idea of boarding schools brings unpleasant memories to many in
the Indian community, the boarding schools that are considered here are
more the exclusive academies favored by East Coast blue blood types rather
than the beat-the-culture-out-of-the-kids type.

Remington said the decision on where to send the children depends on many
factors, including their ability to avoid some of the temptations of public
school life. Nearby Esparto is a rough-hewn farming community where the
disparities between rich and poor are quite great and though certainly not
on the level of many urban high schools, gangs and drugs are present.

Since Rumsey has long been impoverished, many social ills have not escaped
the tribe including high dropout rates and though tribal chairwoman Lorenzo
and a few other members are college graduates, most tribal members did not
graduate high school, though many have since received high school
equivalency degrees through tribal programs. As evidence of the hard life
that many tribal members had to previously endure, the oldest member of the
tribe is a mere 68 years old and the next two oldest members are in their
50s.

To bridge this gap, the school is also creating programs for the community
and there are plans for an infant through 3-year old program that will
involve parents.

In addition to three full-time teachers, Yocha-de-he also brings in many
outside sources. On the day this article was written, a group from a
non-profit science center called Explorit, located in nearby Davis was
giving the students a lesson in hands-on science. One member of the
Explorit teaching team said that the tribe has quietly given the center
large donations, without which they could not fully operate and the
non-profit organization repays the favor by regular science teaching visits
to Yocha-de-he.

Remington said the tribe donates to a slew of non-profit organizations who
in turn help the school. In addition, the tribe also receives regular
visits from cultural experts.

Rumsey is one of several bands of the Wintun tribe that span most of the
northwest section of the California's Central Valley. One of the regular
visiting cultural teachers is Sage LaPena, a member of a Wintun band from
further up the valley who though only in her 30s is gaining a reputation as
one of the foremost California Indian cultural experts.

In fact the curriculum as a whole incorporates all of the usual subjects
including math, science, social studies, reading and geography as well as
American Indian history and culture.

The children themselves seem to be almost as enthusiastic as the teachers.
The oldest student, Joel Lowell, 14, is on an independent study program.

"I really like it here, you learn a lot but have fun too," enthused Lowell.

Since the school is new, many areas are still under development. Among them
is a library that is beginning to fill its shelves with books and an audio
visual area that includes a complete set of National Geographic videos that
span the past century and movies such as "Smoke Signals."

Remington confirmed the school will hire a part-time librarian for the next
school year.

The school also has access to the community center gym and students also
visit an arts and crafts center for ceramics and other projects.

The changes that the school is bringing the community are already being
felt and the school staff believes that theirs should be a model for other
impoverished rural communities. However, the school's $9,700 annual tuition
might prove problematic for other communities without the resources. The
tribe pays for its own members and even subsidizes the non-tribal members
according to need, though no child's family pays more than $1,000 per year,
a cap set by the tribe, to send their children to Yocha-de-he.

The budget allows the teachers greater ability to use the latest teaching
materials. Teacher Todd Gettleman, who has been with the school since the
days it was taught in a trailer, marveled at the ease in which he can
acquire textbooks and other teaching aides.

"From a teacher's perspective, this is really great, no struggles with
money, which makes it so much easier," Gettleman said.

Another aspect of the budget is that Yocha-de-he students are able to go on
elaborate field trips. This fall the students at Yocha-de-he are going to
Washington, D.C. to witness the opening of the National Museum of the
American Indian and are even going to participate in some of the opening
events.

All in all, the Yocha-de-he staff seems to have the creative energy and
determination to make the school a success. Plude perhaps best sums up the
attitude, "I'm terminally optimistic, the kids are great and the school is
really taking off."