To catch struggling students,
tribes turn to charter schools
Dec. 13, 2004
MISSION, Ore. - Behind a locked
door on the campus of the newly opened Nixyaawii Charter School on the Umatilla
Indian Reservation, about a dozen teenagers have gathered for their last class
of the day.
There are no teachers in the room, no adults allowed. The charter school's
students - slouched low in their seats, baseball caps pulled down, sweatshirt
hoods pulled up - are talking about how to behave in school, relearning
kindergarten-era lessons long forgotten.
"We have to learn how to govern ourselves," said the group's de-facto leader,
20-year-old Jess Stone. "You guys are leading by example. You have to lead
yourself before you lead others."
In Nixyaawii's first few difficult
months, this group of students has emerged as a linchpin, helping to hold
together a school on which the hopes of a reservation are resting.
Similar charter schools are cropping up throughout Indian Country, in states
like California, Arizona and New Mexico. Tribal officials have pinned their
hopes on the start-up schools as their best chance to reach a generation of
Indian students who've dropped out or drifted through traditional public
Charter schools receive public funding - including, for Nixyaawii, $350,000 in
one-time start-up money from the U.S. Department of Education - but are free
from many of the rules and restrictions that apply to other public schools.
The idea is to encourage experimentation in education; such schools operate
under a "charter" or contract with local school boards or state officials.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which tracks charter
schools, counts at least 30 Indian charter schools in the country. Arizona has
the most, with 12, followed by California with six; Indian charters have also
opened in Minnesota and Michigan.
Not all of the schools have gotten great results; in Arizona, for example, a
tribal charter school was recently shut down after authorities there had trouble
with federal special education requirements and an audit, said Onnie Shekerjian,
who sits on the Arizona State Board for charter schools.
But others have achieved solid results in just a short time. The San Diego-area
Barona Indian Charter School, for example, posted big gains in student
performance on standardized test scores in the 2003-2004 school year, besting
the state average.
More Indian charter schools are in the planning stages in Oregon, Wyoming and in
Alaska, where a coalition of Fairbanks-area non-profit groups and local tribes
are planning a charter school that could open as soon as 2006.
Besides standard curriculum, the Alaska charter school would offer "hunting,
harvesting, building canoes, berry-picking - all different activities to
reinforce native culture," said Sharon McConnell Gillis, executive director for
the Doyon Foundation, one of the groups working on the Alaska proposal.
In Oregon, a lot's riding on Nixyaawii being a success. The idea for the school
had been floating among the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation for
more than a decade before the tribe finally made up its mind this year to seek
charter status, but after that, things moved quickly.
Principal Annie Tester was brought on board in July and hired her three teachers
in August, only a month before the start of school, housed in a community
center. All three teachers are teaching some courses outside their credential
Things moved so quickly that there wasn't time to buy textbooks or new computers
or arrange for hot school lunches to be delivered or start up a hoped-for
community mentorship program.
There were skeptics, and whispers that the school had started so fast in order
that it could field a basketball team, a hot commodity on a reservation that's
crazy for the sport.
Still, 48 students showed up for the first day of class, refugees from area high
schools where they had been surrounded by a sea of white faces.
Some come from high poverty families, and have relatives who have battled with
alcoholism and drugs, Tester said; others had been tuning school out since
junior high, one reason officials are hoping to eventually add seventh and
eighth grades to Nixyaawii.
The students came to a school where the emphasis is on Indian culture - students
learn traditional beadwork and basketry in art classes, discuss native fables in
English and, instead of Spanish or German, are getting instruction in the
almost-lost Indian languages spoken by their ancestors.
Teachers are trying to emphasize learning through group projects, rather than
the more traditional scenario of a teacher lecturing up front, and students
And so far, there have been some real victories.
For one thing, the school's so small that students can't slouch and hide, as
they might have been able to do at a traditional public school, said Kristine
Patrick, the charter school's English teacher.
Also, in October, Nixyaawii was chosen to receive a small schools grant from the
Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the $137,000 will pay for
teacher training and curriculum development.
And though two key players are ineligible because of grades, the Nixyaawii boy's
basketball team beat its first conference rival, by a resounding 63-44.
But for some of the students, old habits have died hard. Teachers say there are
too many times when students doze off in class, or leave to get a drink of water
and don't come back, or turn in an assignment weeks late.
"We are doing a lot of unlearning before we learn," said Tre Luna, who teaches
social studies at Nixyaawii, his first full-time job.
Even some students say classroom behavior is still a work-in-progress.
"A lot of these students take kindness for weakness," said Eddie Simpson, an
18-year-old born on the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho reservation who bounced from school
to school before landing at Nixyaawii. "It pisses me off - our teacher is just
trying to teach, and they are talking while she is talking.
She never did anything to disrespect them."
Simpson said he's determined to get his remaining high school credits and
graduate, and then plans to search out scholarship money to attend community
college and train to be an EMT. He said he sees Nixwaayii as his last, best
"If I don't do this, what's there for me?" Simpson asked.
The classroom troubles were one reason Stone and the other students formed their
leadership club - knowing, Stone said, that Nixwaayii's future turns on its
"For these teachers, it is their first time teaching at a native school, and for
these students, it is their first time at a native school," said Stone, who
wants someday to become a tribal politician. "The respect level was affected and
there were clashes. We are seeking to reverse that."
Tester and others said Nixyaawii's first year is really a work-in-progress, a
chance to establish a baseline from which to build. After this year, she said,
staff will be able to know where their students stand, and where they need to
At the start and end of each day, students and teachers gather in a circle for
announcements and to talk about the day ahead or the day gone by.
There's a perceptible, calm weariness among students and teachers at the
"Even with the chaos today, it was a good day," teacher Luna told the students.
"To those of you who had patience and stuck it out, thank you."