In Indian country, students' English skills trail peers'
Associated Press
Dec. 17, 2005

John Miller

FORT HALL, Idaho - One of Michele Hernandez's earliest memories from 1960s southern Idaho is calling across the playground to a kindergarten classmate.

Suddenly, a teacher pulled her inside the schoolhouse by the arm and washed her mouth out with soap.

The punishment wasn't for profanity.

It was for speaking Shoshone, her grandmother's language.

"I was living in two worlds," said Hernandez, now a tutor at IT Stoddard Elementary in Blackfoot. "You always had to keep a look out for the other side, depending on who was looking."

Her job today: She helps teach English to American Indian youngsters classified by Idaho as "limited English proficient."

While students are no longer punished for speaking their native tongues, English in Indian country remains sensitive, because Native American students continue to trail White peers in language skills, several states'
records show.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools with large Indian populations could eventually be forced to take radical steps if the achievement gap doesn't narrow, including transporting students to higher-performing schools or painful reorganizations.

"It certainly has directed attention to the problem, which has existed for a long, long time," said Jon Reyhner, a professor at Northern Arizona University and an Indian literacy expert. "Indian kids come in to school behind, in terms of vocabulary."

According to a 2005 Mississippi State University report, rural American Indian and Alaska Native children were the least likely of major ethnic subgroups in rural America to be proficient at letter recognition upon kindergarten entry.

State education records from Idaho, Montana and North Dakota show Native American children trail virtually every other category of students in meeting No Child Left Behind targets.

For instance, among North Dakota eighth-graders, just 39.9 percent of Indians were reading at grade level, compared with 75 percent of White students, according to 2003-04 figures.

In Montana, 22 percent of students at the Crow Agency public school on the Crow Indian Reservation read at grade level. Across the state, Native Americans from 17 Indian language backgrounds account for 11 percent of the public school population, and 90 percent of its 6,952 limited English proficient students.

"The average Indian child starts school with a vocabulary of about 3,000 words," said Joe Lamson, a spokesman for the Montana Office of Public Instruction in Helena. "The average White student starts with a vocabulary of 15,000."

Children raised in Indian country may also learn a different dialect of English, one that includes native words. Chris Loether, an anthropology professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello, said many Fort Hall-area residents speak what they call "Red English."

"They've got this dialect, which to them is an identity marker," Loether said. "And it gets stronger as they get older."

There were 592 Indian children in Idaho's $8 million LEP program last year.
Public schools in Indian communities, including Fort Hall Elementary and IT Stoddard, are already facing No Child Left Behind sanctions, according to Idaho Department of Education records.

Deep poverty is the major reason that Indian children struggle with their English skills, experts say.