Story and photos by AARON K. SCHWENDIMAN
Many students in the United States today don’t graduate and go to college, but with programs and scholarships available there is hope for the future. Today American Indian students are among those who have a graduation rate of less than 60 percent, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Many American Indian students who attend Grand County High School in southern Utah live between the Navajo Nation Reservation and Moab, Utah, which makes it difficult for these students to stay in school.
Grand County High School in Moab has a total student body of about 440 students with about 7.5 percent of those students American Indian. This number of American Indian students fluctuates constantly because many of the students move between the Navajo Reservation and Moab. It is the only high school within the county that American Indian students can attend. The next closest high school in a separate county is Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, Utah.
Stephen Hren, principal at Grand County High School, has been working in the Grand School District for 20 years, first as a science teacher and now as a principal for two years.
“Most of our students are Navajo, so they go back to the Navajo Nation reservation or Montezuma Creek, which is where Whitehorse High School is located,” Hren said in an e-mail interview.
Hren said the graduation rate of the American Indian students at the high school last year was about 66 percent when the students don’t move back to the nearby reservation. This is above the national average of 57 percent.
“If we have our Native American students consistently, those that do not move back and forth to the reservation, we have a better than 57 percent graduation rate,” Hren said. “However, for those that move around, our statistics would be similar to this statistic.”
But students who move to and from the reservation get a very inconsistent educational experience. They have different reasons why they move, Hren said.
“Sometimes, they are seeking job opportunities, other times they are in trouble within the reservation, so they leave,” Hren said. “They return for ceremonial purposes, or if they get into trouble off the reservation with school attendance and sometimes the students move without their parents and live with aunts, uncles, or siblings.”
To address these issues for American Indian students in Moab, Grand County High School received a federal grant through Title VII, which is part of the “No Child Left Behind Act” that focuses on Native American academic improvement.
Title VII is dedicated to supporting local educational organizations and institutions so that students can meet the same challenging State student academic achievement standards, just like all other students are expected to meet, according to the U.S. Department of Education Web site.
Grand County High School has created a Native American Studies course, which is open to all students, and a club that has been tracking the progress of its American Indian students. The school has seen an almost 30 percent increase in its passing rate, Hren said.
He believes that if more schools create similar programs, graduation rates and academic achievement of American Indian students will improve.
Nola Lodge, clinical instructor at the University of Utah and a member of the Oneida of Wisconsin Tribe, believes that infusing multicultural education in every subject in schools will help increase graduation rates. Lodge is a member of the Indian Advisory Committee to the Utah State Board of Education that is developing an American Indian education plan to address the issue of the success gap. They have patterned their plans after Washington State and Montana, both of which have implemented successful programs for students.
“We have decided to infuse Indian history education and social studies at all grade levels, K-12,” Lodge said.
Improving academic achievement through tutoring and support structures is another way that has helped American Indian students in school.
Ramalda Guzman, community health representative director for the northern Ute Tribe, says there are many socioeconomic factors that play into the reality of low graduation rates throughout Indian country.
“It’s a bleak picture but our communities are doing their best to address it,” said Guzman, a member of the Ute Tribe. “In our community we try to provide different activities during school and after school that promote education and keep students interested.”
Guzman worked as a tutor in public schools in the early 1980s. She said working with American Indian high school students presented many challenges because they did not seem interested in their education or did not take it seriously.
When students are introduced to reading and other subjects early, they seem to be better prepared for school and be more confident in doing schoolwork and communicating with their teachers and peers, Guzman said.
“As a tutor throughout these years I not only worked with students academically but advocated on their behalf when it came to other issues that impacted their lives,” Guzman said. “When students find they can trust you they tend to reveal more of themselves to you.”
Students who do well in high school and want to go on to college may encounter another obstacle: funding. To help American Indian students with college tuition the Northern Ute Tribe provides scholarships. Individuals must fill out an application and provide required documentation such as an acceptance letter from a college, letters of recommendations, a personal essay, and ACT scores. Each year the tribe sponsors 50 students who will receive approximately $8,000 per year, Guzman said.
She recommended that the Ute Tribe education department provide students with assistance filling out college applications and helping them navigate through the college admission process.
“We are constantly seeking ways to help our students be successful in school,” Guzman said.
Once students enter college, many universities offer programs to help them succeed. The University of Utah has the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs. According to the Web site, CESA is dedicated to providing programs that assist students through the different barriers of society and helping them achieve academic excellence. The center serves the needs of American Indian, African American, Asian American, Latina-Latino, and Pacific Islander students.
The U’s Lena Judee is the American Indian program coordinator and Inter Tribal Student Association advisor for CESA. Judee’s specific focus as an advisor is to assist American Indian students complete their studies at the U.
Lodge said the main goal behind these programs for American Indian students is to support them through their educational experience so that they don’t feel alone in a large community.