Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
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.
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