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San Juan School District
Students are bused in to Monument Valley High School, located on the Navajo Indian Reservation south of Blanding.

For many American Indian youths, the educational outlook is bleak. In some cases, youths are more likely to drop out of high school than to graduate.

The Navajo Nation has taken a step towards putting education into its own hands by creating a department of education.

Leland Leonard, Navajo tribal education director, said there hasn't been much improvement for Navajo youths since No Child Left Behind became law in 2001. In 2004, the State Office of Education reported that just under 71 percent of American Indian youths in Utah graduated from high school.

"The states and the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) are not doing it," Leonard said. "This is an initiative of exercising our sovereignty, our inherited right to reform the educational system on the Navajo Nation."

Leonard said in July the Navajo Nation amended its Title 10 education code to create its own department of education and is also establishing a school board. The department will look at the "unique language and culture and incorporating those into the curriculum" over the next decade at about 180 schools in the Four Corners region.

"The Navajo language and character development, those are all essential tools our kids need to learn," he said.

Shirlee Silversmith, Indian education specialist at the State Office of Education, said the Navajo Nation already had an education director, and the restructuring provides more authority in areas such as accessing data.

"There would be a greater direction for cooperation as well as collaboration," she said. "A lot of this is based on sovereignty rights of tribes. It puts our American Indians in a unique status that will allow tribes to establish themselves as state departments of education."

Many tribes, she said, conduct their own research and analysis of data so they can better assist students and parents.

"The Navajo Nation is probably one of the largest tribes across the nation and is in the forefront as far as developing and establishing themselves as a tribal education department," she said.

Silversmith said every Utah tribe has an education director, and she believes that eventually, the others may move in the same direction as the Navajos. She pointed to a charter high school on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation in eastern Utah as another empowering move.

Toni Turk, federal programs administrator for San Juan School District in southeastern Utah, said his district's graduation rate is about 95 percent. Last year, his district reported five dropouts — three were American Indian, two were white.

The San Juan School District educates 1,643 American Indian students, the overwhelming majority of them Navajo. San Juan is unique in Utah, in that more than half of the district's 2,921 students are American Indian. There are Navajo students in 11 of 12 schools, some of which are adjacent to or on the reservation.

"Their role is to support public education," Turk said. "They were emphatic about the fact this is not intended as a takeover of public education, nor is it a raid on the resources.

"To some degree this is going to impact most of the schools in the district," he said. For some schools, in which nearly all students are Navajo, "they are going to have much bigger involvement."

Turk said San Juan is already doing some things that would fall under the new accountability standards, such as teaching the Navajo language in grades K-12 and incorporating cultural instruction.

"In Navajo language and culture instruction, they see us as a partner. They would like to have other districts emulate the San Juan District."

Cameron Cuch, former Ute education director, said that tribe's charter high school is in its seventh year of opening doors for youth achievement.

Cuch said the reservation's dropout rate has ranged from 60 percent to 80 percent since the 1960s, and the charter school is helping reduce that rate. More American Indian students graduate from the school than from both off-reservation public high schools in the area, he said.

"It's within our own community, and kids are getting a lot more opportunities than they are in other high schools," he said. Youths have more opportunities to participate in sports or take field trips, such as last year's trip to the Sundance Film Festival, he said.

There's also the matter of being able to teach tribal priorities, such as caring for people and protecting lands, wildlife and water rights.

"When we operate our own schools, we can instill that sense of responsibility into young people," he said. Leaders hope they'll continue their education and return to serve as teachers, lawyers, doctors, or in whatever profession they choose, he said.

Research into tribal education has found that students who have support from traditional families and communities have a more positive educational experience, said Carol Ward, associate sociology professor at Brigham Young University and author of "Native Americans in the School System: Family, Community and Academic Achievement."

"Many tribes have responded to the complexity of schooling for Native American students," she said. "They have responded by saying 'I think we can do schooling better.' "

That happens by integrating culture and language into the curriculum in a way that makes education more relevant, she said.

Ward looked at three schools on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana in the late 1980s and early '90s — a public school and a Catholic school, both off the reservation, and a community tribal school. Her research found that students who went to their local tribal school did better, in large part because of increased parental involvement.

"The interaction between parents and kids and the school . . . the relationships they have can create a really positive environment," she said. "When the parents are involved, that tells the kids, 'This is important.' "

She said parents also help to bridge the cultural gap at schools where most teachers aren't American Indians. At schools where students were bused from their community, it was more difficult to establish that relationship. She said the tribal school's dropout rate was just over half, but for just the students from the town where it was located, it was only about 10 percent.

"What the Navajo Nation is also trying to address, is more people be involved in schooling and their own work," she said, "more of a partnership between the community and the school."

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