Tribal Colleges Reach Out to Future Students, Pre-K Through 12

May 15th, 1998 | By | Category: 9-4: Pre- K-12 Education, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

The Blackfeet Community College Enuksstsimmiksi Center serves children such as Daniel Hall and Carl White Grass III. The Center is part of the college's Early Childhood Program and functions as a lab for student teachers. Photo by Lee Marmon

“For the last 100 years, education in the Indian community has been both its salvation and its scandal. “—Gerald Wilkinson, National Indian Youth Council, 1989.

At public meetings, government and foundation representatives often exhort tribal college presidents to get involved in educating younger children in their communities. Few people outside of the tribal college community seem to be aware of the extent of tribal colleges’ efforts on behalf of pre-K-12 education. Tribal colleges train teachers and Head Start instructors; they create cultural curriculum; they sponsor pre-college orientation programs; and they create school to work programs. Some of these programs have long histories; United Tribes Technical College’s elementary school celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. A few of the colleges’ efforts are described in this issue.

Why would the tribal colleges direct their resources at  younger students when they are chronically underfunded for their college programs? These are their children and grandchildren, their community, their future, and they are in serious trouble.  Despite significant  improvements in the last 25 years,  Indian students continue to suffer from low expectations, high drop-out rates, and low academic achievement. Statistically, Indian students come in last in almost every area. For example, 30.4 percent of the eighth grade Native students dropped out by the end of their senior year  in a study published this year by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. (This compared with a dropout rate of 10.8 percent for the total 19,000 students sampled in this study.) While this was a nationwide study, other studies confirm that students at reservation schools are no exception to the alarming statistics. The current educational system often fails to prepare students for being good citizens of their tribe or the nation.

Administrators of tribal colleges cannot ignore problems of K-12 schools. They understand that children who today attend Head Start will tomorrow be crossing the threshold of their college. The tribal colleges invest valuable resources in cleaning up after the shortcomings of the existing K-12 schools by providing high school graduate equivalency training, remedial classes, and sometimes by providing alternative schools. Tribal colleges, however,  receive their core funding for college students, not for providing Adult Basic Education. According to a recent Carnegie Foundation survey of tribal colleges, 20 percent of the students questioned had completed a GED program before beginning formal classes at a tribal college. Several colleges report that  GED students represent one-third or more of the students they are serving.

Reasons for the problems are many. As Dorreen Youngbird says in her article in this issue, the dismal statistics are partially a legacy of  the 1700s and 1800s when tribal nations were torn apart, disrupting the healthy, traditional parenting and community interactions. Karen Swisher agrees that tribal and family disorganization affect today’s education. Swisher, a noted Standing Rock Sioux scholar and director of the Haskell Indian Nations University teacher education program, says that historic experiences with education alienated  Indian parents from the education of their children. In an interview with Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center) magazine, she said Indian children also suffer from the same barriers as other rural children: geographic distance, teacher turnover, lack of resources, limited access to technology.

It is beyond the scope of this issue to look in detail at the analyses of K-12 problems and the good models that address them.  The guide to literature in this issue will lead readers  to more detailed accounts.  For example, Thomas D. Peacock’s and Linda Miller Cleary’s book, Collected Wisdom, provides insights from teachers across the country about both the reasons for the problems and which teaching approaches work with Indian students.

One of the most important studies on Indian education was the 1991 Indian Nations at Risk Task Force Report. The U.S. Department of Education chartered the group of educators to identify problems and to propose an educational strategy to transform Native education by the year 2000. Their report to the Secretary of Education was based on extensive testimony by citizens and educators, school site visits, and commissioned papers. They identified 10 education goals that they wanted the nation to meet by the year 2000. While progress has been made in some places, many problems continue seven years later.

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