Educators concerned about Utah American Indian dropouts

by JAMIE A. WELCH

During the 2003-04 school year, just 377 American Indians in Utah graduated from high school while 26,976 white students graduated. According to the 2005 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, in the 2003-04 school year, 6.4 percent of Utah’s American Indian students in grades 9 through 12 dropped out of high school before graduating. This contrasts with Utah’s white students, whose dropout rate was 3 percent.

Because American Indians comprise just 2 percent of Utah’s population, this dropout rate raises concerns for the educational and occupational future of American Indians. Among those concerned is Forrest S. Cuch, director of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs.

Cuch, born in 1951 on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Reservation, is a member of the Ute Indian Tribe. He studied at public schools until the 9th grade, when he enrolled in Wasatch Academy, a private college-prep school in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. He then attended Westminster College and graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in behavioral sciences.

He supports private schools and credits his educational background, private schooling, to his earned occupational position. Cuch knows why American Indians have a high dropout rate. It is because “we [American Indians] come to school illiterate.” Illiterate in the ways outside of the American Indian lifestyle, that is.

Cuch’s concern is that Utah’s public school teachers don’t know how to teach American Indian children. There is an important difference in the way America’s majority is taught and the way American Indians are taught. Cuch explained that when American Indian students attend public schools for the first time, they are taken from a nurturing environment and expected to perform exactly as their peers of other races do. This causes frustration in the part of the educator and also of the student.

Cuch describes the typical classroom’s learning styles as patriarchal, analytical, competitive, controlling of nature, detail-oriented and ultimately scientific. In contrast, American Indian ways are matriarchal, holistic, cooperative, dedicated to living in harmony with nature, focused on a larger scheme and very spiritual. He emphasized that American Indian children are raised in a different world – one in which they are given the freedom to learn in their own style. When these children are placed in this unfamiliar environment, their performance levels will differ from other children. Cuch noted that the American Indian students gradually lose interest in a world that confuses them and places pressure to compete.

He suggested, “The better way to teach our kids is in a smaller classroom where they can work in groups.” He also said each child needs more individual attention. Having witnessed firsthand the way public schools handle the specific needs of American Indian students, Cuch observed “there is an effort but it is not enough.”

Nola Lodge, a clinical instructor and director of American Indian Teacher Education at the University of Utah, also has an opinion on the education of American Indian youth. In an e-mail interview, Lodge agreed with Cuch in that “teachers are not prepared to work with AI [American Indian] students.  Consequently they [students] do not reach their potential.” Lodge also worries that public school systems don’t give an accurate representation of American Indian history. The reason, she notes, is “teachers cannot teach what they do not know or understand.”

American Indians in Utah have a few alternative options to attending public schools. The Uinta River High School in Fort Duchesne is open for grades 9 through 12 where the student to teacher ratio is 10-to-1. Schools like this offer more one-on-one interactions between teachers and students, thus employing Cuch’s idea of smaller classrooms. Smaller schools are available, but are they enough? Cuch says no, that the teaching style is what should be stressed. “The best way to teach is out of love.” Lodge agrees that love is a key element. “To educate any child,” she says, “we must foster a love of learning.”

Until public schools offer better programs for American Indian students, Cuch recommends private and charter schooling for Native children, where class sizes are smaller and curriculum is more flexible.