Indian graduation rates better
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 9, 2006

After generations of bad showings, success up to 63%, still low but improving

Jessica Coomes

Native Americans are graduating from high school at an increasing pace after generations of poor showings by tribal members earning diplomas.

Educators credit a variety of programs, each targeting a specific Indian community, for the improvement.

The Indian graduation rate climbed 13 percent statewide from 2000 to 2004, the latest year with complete statistics. Slightly more than 63 percent of Indians in the class of 2004 graduated in four years. advertisement

The Indian graduation rate still trails the overall rate of 77 percent, and typically the percentage of Native American seniors graduating is lower than any other ethnic group.

"A lot of people would look at those numbers and say, well, they're still low. But the other part of the story is it's going in the right direction, and we are seeing an improvement," said Debora Norris, Indian education specialist for the Arizona Department of Education.

The trend is promising for the students, whose graduation rates are affected by an array of hurdles unique in each of Arizona's 22 tribes, Norris said.

For example, graduation rates suffer in poor communities, areas with high unemployment and remote reservations where it is difficult to keep teachers more than three years or pay them competitively.

Norris credits the climbing graduation rates, in part, to an assortment of collaborative programs between school districts and tribes that have gained momentum in the past decade.

Part of Norris' job is to identify successful initiatives and get tribes to share their accomplishments with each other.

One of those programs is helping 17-year-old Richard Alvarez, a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, get back on track to graduation.

Things at one time were not looking good. Alvarez, who lives in the mostly Indian community of Guadalupe near Tempe, failed both his sophomore and junior English classes. His family, he said, had little hope that he would graduate in four years.

When Alvarez decided to get back on track to "try to prove everybody wrong,"
he turned to the Indian education summer program at Tempe's Marcos de Niza High School.

"There are a lot of efforts being made out there," Norris said. "Everyone is trying extremely hard to find something that is going to help Native American students graduate. The programs that are most effective have been built over many years. They have been built by the parents, the community, teachers, school leadership."

Three examples of programs that work are:

Stepping back on track - Marcos de Niza High School has watched Indian graduation rates shoot up to more than 80 percent, following five years of catch-up programs and tutoring for mostly Pascua Yaqui students from Guadalupe. Five years ago, Marcos de Niza saw 39 percent of its boys and 82 percent of its girls receive diplomas.

Getting to class - The graduation rate of seniors who belong to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation rose to nearly 80 percent this year from slightly more than 40 percent before 2003. Tribal leaders attribute the improvement, in part, to a unique truancy policy that charges families when students miss school.

Looking to the future - The Phoenix Union High School District now graduates nearly all of the participants in its Hoop of Learning college partnership, which opens up the possibility of higher education to at-risk students.

"All of these things add up," Norris said. "And I really think it's making a difference."

Stepping back on track
One afternoon at Marcos de Niza High School, summer students wandered into
the afternoon session, and the 4 1/2-hour class started quietly.

Behind computer screens, each worked on something different to make up the
classes they might have failed or neglected to take.

"It's at their own pace," teacher Bob Yniguez said. "Entry, exit. We try to
accommodate learning styles."

A program quizzed 16-year-old Briana Carpio, who's going into her junior
year, on present-tense verbs as she retook her freshman English class.

"Freshman year, we do a lot of reading, and reading was really hard for me,"
Carpio said. "I would read it, but I wouldn't remember what I read."

Carpio got frustrated and stopped doing her work. She said she likes the
pace of the computer class much better than the classroom.

A few stations over, incoming senior Krystle Benitez, 17, started American
history, which she did not take as a sophomore.

"It's helping me get my credits faster," Benitez said about the summer
class. "It's a really good way to catch up. I was behind a few credits, but
I'm all caught up now. I'll be graduating on time."

The 5-year-old Peak Performance Center, the tutoring programs and homework
labs are funded through state and federal grants, said Valerie Molina, the
Indian education coordinator for the Tempe Union High School District.

"Without this program, our kids wouldn't be graduating," Molina said about
the summer catch-up class. "Our kids wouldn't be on track."

Principal Frank Mirizio said the school is trying to get the Indian
graduation and dropout numbers to match Arizona's general student averages.

"That stigma shouldn't be there," Mirizio said. "They're students."

Getting to class
The graduation rate of Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation members nearly doubled
as soon as the tribe figured out a way to keep students in the classrooms.

The Tribal Council predicted that students would show up for class if their
families were charged money when they skipped.

Attendance rates have soared in the past three years, said Don Evans, the
tribe's education division director.

Tribal leaders link the increased attendance rates to the corresponding
increase in the number seniors earning diplomas.

After all, if the students are not in class, they cannot learn, Tribal
President Raphael Bear said.

The unique anti-truancy policy, started in 2003, deducts money from the
members' share of casino profits and other tribal payments.

"There are lots of programs going on," Evans said. "We couldn't have done it
just with the truancy ordinance. You have to get the kids to school, but you
have to do something once they're there."

That includes after-school homework help at schools and on the reservation.
Also, the tribe hired six teachers to tutor students at the high school and
middle school in Fountain Hills.

The small tribe, which has fewer than 1,000 members, sends its students to
neighboring high schools, including Fountain Hills, Mesa, Tempe and

Looking to the future
When Ted Hibbeler started a partnership between the Phoenix Union High
School District and Maricopa Community Colleges 13 years ago, he was trying
get more than 10 percent of the district's Native American students to go to

It worked, and now the district sends about 60 percent of its Native
American students on to higher education, he said.

As an unintended side effect, the district has watched graduation rates go

"They stay in high school because they know they're going to college, and
they need a diploma to go to college, said Hibbeler, the Native American
specialist for the district's 14 high schools. "The result is our dropout
rate is sinking, and our graduation rate is climbing because of this Hoop of
Learning program. That wasn't our original intent. Our original intent was
to increase the number of students going to college. But it's a great

Nearly all of the students in the Hoop of Learning program graduate,
Hibbeler said.

Starting freshman year, Indian students can take college classes to give
them a head start in college or give them the confidence to pursue more
higher education after graduating from high school.

"Before the Hoop program, it wasn't an easy task to show them the value of
going to high school," Hibbeler said. "Because a lot of these students are
first-generation college students, and they didn't have mom and dad sitting
at home talking about the benefit of college. When they went to college, it
raised their self-esteem academically tremendously. These young native
students, they're getting A's in college."

Hibbeler emphasized that the participants include not only honors students
but also at-risk students who likely would not have gone to college
otherwise. To qualify for Hoop of Learning, students have to have a 2.0
grade-point average.

The partnership is with community colleges, not a university, because
Hibbeler wanted even students with relatively low GPAs to be able to

"A lot of them are one-parent families," he said. "First-generation college
students. Very low economically. These are very at-risk students."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-6848.