This article examines the need for alternative educational programs for Native American students, and offers food for thought with regard to the creation of viable guidelines for alternative educational program development.
The Native American population of the United States experiences more violence, drug and alcohol abuse, illiteracy, incarceration, and unemployment per capita than any other minority, statistically biased based on the overall size of their ethnic population demographic. Because Native Americans represent only a fraction of America’s population, social scientists have traditionally, and statistically, refrained from segregating data, with regard to illiteracy, drug and alcohol related deaths, unemployment, domestic and other violence, and incarceration of Native American youth and adult population, from that of “other” minorities, excluding African Americans and Hispanics. Group specific examinations, focused strictly on the Native American populations as a whole, however, reveal data that supports this assumption, and provides valid, relevant, and convincing arguments for why it is a necessity that American schools sponsor alternative educational programs for Native American students. To understand why Native American students have poor performance, a specific question must be asked, "Why should Native American students be allowed to have specially adapted educational programs, and what is so different about their learning motivation, compared to that of the Anglo majority?" The answer is simple as it is complex. Native American students, whether young or old, learn through application, by applying principles and skills taught to their daily lives. In order for these students to learn a skill, or subject, they must first understand how it relates to their everyday life, their culture, and how it can help them to stay upon a strong spiritual path. Learning for Native American students, is not motivated by letter grades, or awards, but by the success that it will afford them in future; so when learning environments and curriculum do not address, or even take into consideration, the cultural, and spiritual, differences of these students, future success in academic pursuits, and perhaps life, can become an elusive and unattainable goal. Educational programs for Native American students need to be practical, applicable, and culturally focused. The Native American population’s educational motivation, as a whole, is more focused on the future utilization of lessons and skills learned, and the benefit that will be given back to the Native American community, rather than on the needs and desires of the individual. As each individual succeeds educationally, they become a model for others, and give hope that the Native American way of life will continue.
Unlike the majority of Anglo children, for which our current academic models were designed, Native American children suffer from cultural exclusion and identity crises, racism, poverty and isolation, poor role models, familial instability and abuse, poor mental, physical, and emotional health, as well as anonymity. For this reason, Native American students, primarily those in grades K-12, can be categorized as dangerously “at risk.” The cultural hurdles, compounded by those thrown at them educationally, cause many Native American students to drop out, abuse drugs and alcohol, and/or commit crimes to medicate and alleviate their inability to cope with what appear to them as insurmountable obstacles. It can be argued that the number of dangerously “at risk” students from other minority populations, as well as the "at risk" group in the Anglo population, warrant the same types of programs and considerations proposed for Native American "at risk" students, however, the majority of alternative educational programs, targeted for “at risk” students, already address the cultural, social, health, and environmental issues of these populations, while continuing, for the most part, to exclude those issues that are endemic to the "at risk" population of Native American students.
I compared three alternative high school models from three separate areas of the country, the first being Merlo Station High School in Beaverton, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. This school services the “at risk” student population of the Beaverton School District. The total district population of the Beaverton School District is 60,000, 83% White, 2% African American, 5% Hispanic, and 10% Other, it is not clear which cultural group makes up the remaining 10%, but, being familiar with that area, it would not be presumptuous to say that it was, for the most part, Asian. Merlo Station, whose district enrollment is 523 students, with an average weekly attendance of 30, and is a nationally recognized alternative school program, addresses the environmental, academic, and life issues that affect the “at risk” student. Its main programs are at-risk, drop-out prevention, substance abuse, community environment, community pride, literacy, and multicultural, but having had a child at this school, I can honestly report that it does not, nor can its present educational programs, begin to address the day to day life issues, and decisions, that face the Native American student. The second nationally recognized alternative educational model, the Rapid City Area School District 51-4 program, addresses the “at risk” student population in the Rapid City, South Dakota area. This district has overall district population of 70,000, 12% African American, 63% White, 13% Hispanic, and 12% Native American, with a district enrollment of 14,500, and an average weekly attendance of 4,225 individuals. It offers the same basic programs as Merlo Station, with the exception of adding Economic Development and Art programs. Although, this district is located in the heart of”Indian Country", it still makes little, if any, additional effort to address the needs of the small, but distinct, Native American student population. Finally, the third, and final, nationally recognized alternative educational model was the Tuba City High School program. This school is located on Arizona’s Navajo reservation, adjacent to the Hopi reservation, Navajo and Hopi students are the primary enrollees of this high school, and most live within a 54 mile radius of the town of Tuba City, Arizona. This school, of course, addresses the academic and personal issues specific to Native American students, and it seems to be succeeding. While arguably it could be construe d as unfair to the other two alternative educational programs, Tuba City High School does something that the other schools do not do, it demand, high degrees of success from its Native American students.
In other programs, mainstream and alternative, educator belief, expectations and demands on minority, especially Native American, students have been significantly less, than that of their Anglo cohorts. This is despite assertions to the contrary, that all students in an “at risk” educational program exhibit, overall, the same level of risk, educator expectation and demand, and academic ability. Historically, “at risk” students were primarily those whose appearance, language, culture, values, communities, and family structures did not match those of the dominant Anglo culture that schools were designed to serve and support. These students–primarily minorities, the poor, and immigrants–were considered culturally or educationally disadvantaged or deprived. As it became obvious that large numbers of these students were not achieving at minimally acceptable levels, “it seemed natural and certainly easy to define the problem as arising from deficiencies in the students themselves (Goodlad and Keating, 1990). Even more problematic, this early categorizing of students often has the effect of simply lowering teachers’ expectations as to what students have the potential to achieve. The phrase “what you can expect from these types of students” continues to be heard throughout too many schools and classrooms (Hixson and Tinzman, 1990). In a 1990 report, Hixson and Tinzman discussed how Tuba City High School has addressed the problems that face the Native American students, living an isolated rural, or reservation, life, extreme poverty, high teen pregnancy, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as other similar issues facing Native American students on many other reservations. The effects these issues have on the Native American youth are reflected in their low scores on scholastic basic skills tests, and extremely high dropout rates.
Native American youth have long been at a disadvantage, with regard to post-secondary education. These disadvantages can impose limits on the ability of these students to interact and succeed in a society whose predominant cultural alignment is white. While Tuba City High School, has addressed the issues of these rural, reservation, and isolated students, and has been quite successful in raising test scores, graduating more students, and keeping substance abuse and teen pregnancy low, it has not provided the Native American youth an opportunity to learn and interact with the white culture that surrounds them, which may lead to additional problems for those student who seek post-secondary courses of study.
Understanding the issues that face the "rural" Native American students are an extremely important component of the overall educational picture, but what of the "urban" Native American students? What can be done for them? First, it is extremely important to set aside budgets and logistical planning for alternative programs that are specifically designed for Native American students; programs that will address the need to acclimate these students to urban life and white culture gradually, so that they can develop the skills and education necessary to succeed in a diverse and alien culture. It cannot be stressed enough, that the first, and most important, skill that we must impart to the Native American student is how to live and exist in a foreign culture, while maintaining a solid identity with their own. We must stop trying to fit the Native American youth into the cultural mold of white society, and allow them to live and learn according to their own culturally specific applications and values, while preparing them for academic and personal life on, and beyond, the reservation.
The purpose of this article is to give a basic overview of the educational problems facing Native American students today, in the hopes that it would solicit ideas and feedback with regard to the development of alternative programs that will address these needs. Perhaps, a joint educational task-force dedicated specifically to the gathering of data, and implementation of research and development into how, given that current national educational model is culturally Anglo specific, Native American and white educators of today can lead our educational system into the future. A new model must be created, refined, and implemented on a national scale in order to encourage the educational success and advancement of Native American students while preserving and protecting their tribal culture and way of life.
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