Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Native American graduation rate rises

Eight-year-old Raven-Sky Billie wants the title this year. Last year she was first attendant in the Shiyazhi Pageant in Park City, where she showcased traditional Navajo dress, language and songs.

But Eileen Quintana wants something more for Raven-Sky and other Native American children. She hopes that putting them in touch with their heritage will propel them to graduate from high school.

Quintana is the director of the Title VII Indian Education Program in the Nebo School District, which has helped raise the Native American graduation rate in the district from 37 percent in 1998 to as high as 94 percent in 2003. The national average is less than 50 percent.

About 250 students in the district participate in the program, with about 85 percent being Navajo. About 17 different tribes, including Lakota, Utes, Piutes, Chippewas and Shoshones also are represented.

Twice a week Navajo language classes are offered, and an after-school program provides instruction on traditional arts and Native American history. A summer-school program carries on those lessons. Last year, students made teepees and learned about the history and meaning behind the symbols painted on them.

When the program first started in 1998, Quintana offered homework help and dance instruction every Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m., and for the first six months, no one showed up.

Then, families started coming. "The first thing I did was I went and tried to find all my little lost Indian kids," Quintana said. "I made visits with their families and talked to them. I did it very Navajo."

Quintana said she can always tell when her students start learning about Native American history in school, because their grades drop. "One of the things that I hear my students say the most is, 'I feel invisible. I'm the only Native American in my school. When they teach about native Americans in my school it's not something I connect to. It's something very different.' "

Giving them accurate information about their history is key to tapping into their self-esteem and potential, Quintana said.

"It's amazing how brilliant our people are, and we need to connect back into that to really ignite that fire within our children so that we validate who they are. We validate them. They're not invisible. They have something to contribute to this society," she said.

Shirlee Silversmith, Indian education curriculum director for the Utah State Office of Education, recently finished a two-year process of developing lessons about Native Americans for use in schools. She hopes that the Native Americans students read about in their schoolbooks will be more closely connected to their own identities.

The Nebo district's Indian Education program extends that relationship between culture and learning.

Silversmith explained how a drum can be used to teach math. "If you can utilize a drum and look at the diameter of a drum, and how do you come up with the diameter, the math work on that, they have something tangible they can hold in their hand and that is a part of their culture. You make it relevant for that child, and that's what Eileen has done. She just takes all different kinds of cultural and language and integrates it into a program model that is just working very well for her students and families."

Quintana said students have limited opportunities to learn about their culture in public schools. She once looked for a book in the Spanish Fork High School library about Navajo Code Talkers who helped transmit and decode secret messages during World War II and couldn't find one.

Statewide in 2005, American Indian students passed the state's language arts test at a rate of nearly 52 percent, while their white counterparts passed at 81 percent, according to the State Office of Education. In math, American Indians had a pass rate of 49 percent, compared to 76 percent for white students.

Government oppression has made many Native Americans standoffish about government and public services such as schools, Silversmith said. That suspicion has caused some parents to teach their children to be silent at school. Quintana added that many Native American cultures also require children to be quiet and learn by observation. "You have a cultural thing there, because that definitely is not the case in the society we live in."

Natalie Billie, volunteer and treasurer for the program's parent committee, said the program has helped teach her children, Raven-Sky and 6-year-old Shakotah, about their roots. "For us it's more of the culture we come for -- learning the Navajo songs and learning about the traditional ways. Their dad was raised here in Springville, so he kind of got taken away from the traditional ways, so he's learning right along with them."

Raven-Sky can sing a four-verse song titled, "Who is My Mother?" in Navajo, Billie said. "It just kind of teaches them where they come from."