A high school administrator never expected much from Garrett Timbimboo. "You'll never amount to anything," the man told Timbimboo as a sophomore. "The Indians I've seen are just drunks."
The young member of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation told his mom, who paid a visit to the educator.
Your son has issues, he told Patty Timbimboo-Madsen. "Now I know why," he told her. "You're all Indians. That's the way all you people are."
Timbimboo's story has a decent ending.
His father, who is white, went to visit the high school administrator next and the administrator "sang a different tune." He promised to work with the teenager.
Nevertheless, Garrett Timbimboo, now 27, left that high school and finished elsewhere. Today he is a production supervisor at a structural steel plant in Brigham City. He has a 4-year-old daughter, and his wife is expecting the couple's second child.
Though stung by the vice principal's comments at the time, he said he doesn't hold a grudge.
"Some people feel that way. That's fine with me," he said. "I know I'm a good person. But I don't have to be around that."
Litany of challenges
Part of the problem seems to be bigotry and low expectations of Indian children.
Part of the problem seems to be bad test-taking skills.
Part of the problem is poverty and a lack of services in rural areas of the reservations.
And maybe, most importantly, Indian officials say few people in Utah's education world understand that it takes a different approach to successfully teach American Indian students.
"They know how to educate white kids," says Forrest Cuch, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. "They don't know how to educate Indian kids."
Utah must do something different, he said. "It hasn't worked for 50 years."
There is no argument that Indian young people have high dropout rates and are consistently the lowest-performing students in Utah. State officials, educators and tribal leaders are trying to solve the complex problem.
Buoyed by extra state effort and tribal money where economic development progress is trickling into education coffers, some students are bucking a dismal trend.
For example, ACT scores for American Indians have increased by a 2-point average since 2002, said Chris Kearl, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s deputy of education.
"We are very proud of the strides we are making with our Native American students," she said.
The University of Utah now offers teacher-training programs for Indians, Cuch said.
And some communities are doing their part.
Ute students were failing in Uintah Basin public schools, so the tribe chartered its own school on the reservation.
Kathleen Chegup is now the principal of Uintah River High School in Fort Duchesne. About 55 students attend the school, which is 96 percent American Indian students. Today, more students are graduating, and more are going on to college, Chegup said.
The school has smaller class sizes, does lots of reading programs and incorporates native culture into the curriculum. "It is difficult, and there are challenges, but we are making progress for these kids," she said.
The future of young people in this population lies in being able to live and flourish on the reservation, Huntsman said.
"Implicit in that is education, and it is not going to be done with traditional bricks and mortar," the governor said.
So he is supporting various new efforts to bring technology and distance learning to the state's reservations.
After last winter's legislative session, Huntsman vetoed HB151, which would have allowed schools to charge students taking concurrent enrollment classes. The governor said the bill would have effectively limited the opportunity for many rural and American Indian students.
This summer, the Navajo Nation signed an agreement with Certiport, an American Fork technology company, to teach students computer, Internet and other technology skills. The company will operate in 110 community centers on the Navajo reservation.
Still, the gravity of an education crisis among Indian youths looms.
In a presentation to school and state officials, Cuch says Indian student dropout rates in rural areas range from 60 to 80 percent.
"The current state of education for Indian children is appalling," he wrote in the presentation. "They are consistently at the bottom of every standardized test given to Utah's children."
Indeed, American Indian third- and fifth-graders in Utah are among the lowest achievers, according to the 2006 Iowa Tests of Basic Skills the state uses to measure student achievement.
But eighth- and 11th-graders record lower scores than all ethnic and socioeconomic groups except children with learning disabilities.
In meetings with the Navajo Nation this summer, Indian leaders told Huntsman they need the state's help to improve academics.
"It's sad to see so many Utah Navajos not graduate or pass the (Utah basic skills test)," said Mark Maryboy, a former San Juan County commissioner and Navajo Nation Council delegate.
The governor offered support. "That's an appropriate role for us," he said.
In an interview, Huntsman said he would direct some effort toward students in early education prekindergarten to third or fourth grades among this struggling population. "Early education is the great leavening event," he said. "The playing field is still even."
The Navajo Utah Commission asked state lawmakers for what it called an "Indian education statute" to show official state recognition of the problem, to encourage a comprehensive Indian education policy, to cultivate a statewide strategy to better this population and a plan for more funding and administrative attention.
"The success rates of Utah's American Indian students continue to lag far behind acceptable standards," the commission wrote in a proposal. "There are discrepancies in efforts to overcome these challenges; there's wide variance in interest and dedication regarding Indian education issues at any given time among educators, administrators and legislators."
"I'm not saying they can't achieve, but as a group they are consistently low," said Clarence Rockwell, commission executive director.
Turning it around
It's necessary to point out that American Indians are "right-brain dominant," Cuch explains, so "whole brain" learning programs with a focus on the arts, small student-to teacher-ratios, group learning, games and phonetic reading programs work best. Self-advocacy, American Indian curriculum and parental involvement through high school are also key elements.
"My hope is if we can learn how to do this, we'll save lives," Cuch said.
Monument Valley High School principal Pat Seltzer doesn't disagree that Indian students learn differently than white students. "A holistic approach works better than a linear approach."
But she gets defensive when she hears criticism of public schools.
"I think the measuring stick we're using is wrong," she said.
"I think our kids don't test well. I do think expectations aren't as high as they could be, but I think teachers are working hard. I think teachers do want kids to do well. Kids want to do well. Their parents want them to do well."
And tribal leaders are certainly turning attention toward education.
Bruce Parry, executive director of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation in Brigham City, called it the top priority for all tribes in the state. For many students, the bottom drops out as early as elementary school.
"They seem to be doing OK until about fourth grade. Then they start going downhill," Parry said. "A lot of them don't make it to high school."
At Ibapah Elementary, a Title I school near the Goshute Indian Reservation in western Utah, officials have worked hard to make progress under daunting circumstances.
About 60 percent of students are American Indian. The school has a 95 percent poverty rate and 35 percent turnover as students come in and move away. It is also profoundly isolated.
Experiences beyond the classroom are limited. There is no library or symphony, one teacher said. In some neighborhoods, schooling is a supplement to a child's education. To these children, it is their education.
Literacy and education are not promoted in some Indian homes.
Seltzer surveyed the 230 Navajo students at Monument Valley. In 1998, 80 percent had no running water or electricity. In 2005, 40 percent lived under the same circumstances. Today, few have Internet access.
This is where a stronger economy comes in, Seltzer said.
"I truly believe the academic levels would be soaring right now if the economic development allowed for our students to stay here and raise their families," Seltzer said.
Outside of tourism and working for the Navajo tribal government, there really isn't much opportunity for young people.
High school graduates move away because there is no work. Few return to start businesses.Comment on this story
"The underlying feeling among parents is that if their kids do well, they will leave. They don't say that out loud, but that's what they truly believe."Tourism and tribal services only job opportunities, she said. But cCollege is the key to success, she said, and 40 to 50 percent of her last graduating class is going on to college. "I don't know how they're going to survive, but they are going," she said.