Indian Students `Left Behind'
Lenora White feels isolated and misunderstood as a minority student in her Chicago high school. Her lessons seem meaningless. She doesn't do well on standardized tests and nearly dropped out this year.
White is precisely the kind of student that the No Child Left Behind law is supposed to rescue from what President Bush calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations." But because White is American Indian, this sweeping educational reform represents little more than another broken promise from the U.S. government.
Native American students are now one of the "subgroups" that schools must track to ensure they are making academic progress and staying in school. Yet in all but a handful of states, that accountability is largely meaningless. In Illinois--where fewer than 4,000 of the state's 2 million students are Native American--it is a population that is practically invisible. They are so scattered that no one school has enough such students for the law to hold the school accountable for their performance.
As a result, these children are reaping few of the benefits of the law and all of the worst fallout, critics say. Schools have little incentive to provide Native American children with special help, they argue, while the law's single-minded push for higher test scores drains the creativity from teaching and diverts resources from school programs for minority children.
"There's not an Indian educator around who doesn't want accountability for these children. But the way the [law] is written, it's absolutely reversing all the positive trends we've seen in Indian education," said David Beauleiu, a former director of the Office of Indian Education for the U.S. Department of Education. "It sterilizes the educational process. It takes the heart and soul out of teaching."
The academic challenges facing the estimated 600,000 American Indian students nationwide are formidable. Only about 17 percent scored as "proficient" in math and reading tests on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 41 percent for their white counterparts tested in 4th and 8th grade.
Their dropout rates also are alarming. Only about half of American Indian students are graduating from high school in four years, according to a national study released this year by Harvard University and the Urban Institute.
White, 16, a sophomore at Schurz High School on Chicago's Northwest Side, almost became one of those statistics. Before family members intervened, she had skipped enough classes to be warned by administrators.
"I want to finish, but it's hard," said White, who has thought about becoming a pediatrician but knows she must first graduate from high school. "I want to set a good example for my younger siblings."
White said high school left her feeling disconnected and misunderstood. She hated being singled out by well-meaning teachers who asked her to speak about Native American culture as though she were an expert. She wanted to punch the ones who made thoughtless cracks about things such as "10 little Indians." The history lessons about Christopher Columbus, even the Pledge of Allegiance--it all felt like a betrayal of what she had learned from her Ojibwe family.
White found a lifeline at the American Indian Center in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood, where she gets help with schoolwork from tutors who understand her cultural isolation and act as advocates in the school system.
She also invited her teachers to a curriculum-training workshop at the center. Three came, including a history teacher who allowed her to write a paper using books written from the Ojibwe perspective. White put a lot of energy into the project, which helped her pass the class last semester.
Megan Bang, a community activist and educator who runs an after-school mentoring program called "Positive Paths," said the needs of Indian kids in Chicago always have been dwarfed by the daunting challenges facing other minority kids--and it's gotten worse since No Child Left Behind. Her program at the Indian Center offers these isolated students what their schools lack--individual academic attention, peer support and cultural activities such as drumming groups and prayer circles.
"I think we have absolutely no leverage because our numbers are too small," Bang said.
Xavier Botana, director of Chicago schools' No Child Left Behind programs, acknowledged that the law has made it difficult for large urban districts such as Chicago to focus on a population too small to register as a subgroup.
"The whole idea of this is if people were not paying attention to a specific group of students, this law was going to make them pay attention," Botana said. "But what gets measured is what gets emphasized. If the group isn't large enough, clearly, people are going to put less attention there."
Illinois seems to buck the national trend at least in one area--the strong academic showing of Native American students in elementary schools, who test nearly as well as their white peers in Chicago schools and statewide.
In Chicago, for example, 61 percent of all Native American students in Grades 3 to 8 scored at or above national norms on the Iowa reading tests, compared with 73 percent for whites, 44 percent for Hispanics and 33 percent for blacks.
But this strong showing starts to decline in middle school, when the gap between white and Indian students swells to more than 20 percentage points. Native American students in Illinois also are far more likely to leave school without a diploma--at rates similar to their African-American and Latino classmates.
"Standardized tests are usually a good predictor of dropout rates, but it doesn't work that way for our kids," Bang said. "We're testing really well, but we're not staying in school."
Indian educators agree the worst problem for native kids in urban districts is the isolation they experience when they are the only Native American student--or one of a few--in their school.
Chicago used to have a federally funded Native American Education Program at Audubon Elementary in the Roscoe Village neighborhood, where an Indian teacher worked with the school's Native American students and taught lessons in other classes about tribal customs and history. At one time the school had more than 90 Native American students. A few years ago, money for the teaching position was cut, the program disappeared, and Native American enrollment has dwindled to fewer than 10.
Julia Brownwolf taught at Audubon a decade ago, when the school was a magnet for Indian children, and she felt free to share unfamiliar teaching methods such as "talking circles" for discipline and burning sage to "bless" her students.
Now, she tutors dropouts in a GED program at the Indian center. Sometimes she sees a former student and wonders: What happened to this child, who showed such promise?
"The system does not know about us," Brownwolf said. "They do not know what our children need."
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