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Interior Dept. Sets Objectives for Indian Education

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Santa Fe, N.M.--Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. last week laid out a broad framework for improving Indian education and urged tribal leaders gathered here for the first of several planned "minisummits" on the subject to take a lead role in that enterprise.

"The essential roots of Indian heritage must be implicit in any program of Indian education," Mr. Lujan said. "That is why we seek your participation in establishing and implementing our education priorities."

More than 750 tribal officials and educators from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah--states accounting for more than half of the 40,000 students enrolled in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools--crowded into the Santa Fe Indian School here for the Southwest Education Summit.

The two-day program of panel discussions and work sessions will be followed by at least one and possibly as many as three other summits to be held in the West in coming months by the bia or tribes and organizations in cooperation with the bia

The meetings, Interior Department officials said, are designed to provide forums for Indian leaders to help hone four broad educational initiatives Mr. Lujan has established as priorities for b.i.a. schools.

These will emphasize, according to Secretary Lujan, the following areas: early-childhood education; enhancing teacher recruitment and retention; making "regular school evaluations an inherent part of the educational process"; and broadening the scope of the b.i.a.'s "effective-schools program" to disseminate proven teaching methods throughout the system.

Mr. Lujan invoked in his speech here the six educational goals President Bush outlined last month in his State of the Union address. When the President voiced his aspirations for American students, the Secretary said, "he obviously was talking about Native American students as well."

But the Interior Department, he continued, also "has a stated goal which reflects the President's education goals." It is, he said, to "raise the educational achievement of students in our schools to the level of, or above, the national norm by the year 2000."

The four specific areas, established as priorities in the bia's 1991 budget, lie within that broad framework, said Mr. Lujan, who has publicly stated that education is his "number one priority" for Indian Country.

Conference participants were asked to join long-range working groups to further refine the initiatives. They also were asked to suggest other areas in which the bia could improve its educational program.

The suggestions, officials said, could be considered as the department formulates its fiscal 1992 budget in the coming months.

'The Biggest Challenge'

Those leaders invited to the summit made it clear that there is no one Indian voice on the question of education but several competing agendas the bia must consider.

Some argued that, as one leader put it, "the goals sound like assimilation goals," designed to force Indian children into the mainstream. Others, too, were skeptical of the process. But many commended Mr. Lujan for his initiative.

Among the meeting's most eloquent voices in conveying the importance of educational progress were students from the Santa Fe Indian School, who attended the first day.

"If we don't have education, then people will take our land," said one. "And if we lose our land, we will lose our culture. And if we lose our culture, then that will be the end."

To rousing applause, the school's superintendent, Joseph Abeyta, said that the "biggest challenge" facing Indian education is to "help change the attitudes of this country regarding Native American students."

"Historically, a lot of people across this country have looked at [Indian] youngsters and at the topic of Indian education as being synonymous with education for the disadvantaged," he said. "I think that's got to stop."

Mr. Abeyta said he has suggested to federal officials that the Interior Department consider contributing to the establishment of a research center at the Santa Fe Indian School, a proposal already being studied in the New Mexico legislature. The research facility would act as a laboratory for developing practical teaching methods geared to Indian students.

Though the focal point of the meeting was the b.i.a.'s direct role in Indian education, through its control of some 182 federal Indian schools, many here also argued that decisions made by the bia would ultimately affect the public, private, and parochial schools where a majority of Indian students are enrolled.

Gov. Gil Vigil of nearby Tesuque Pueblo, where children attend a variety of schools, said that the bia must not be allowed to make policy in a vacuum, or to repeat mistakes of the past.

"If we let the bureau dictate to us the direction we're going to go, then we're going to have another report that's going to be sitting on the shelf, and we'll be in the same situation come the year 2000," he said.

Among the main suggestions brought forth by the working group on public schools was that a liaison office be established within the bia to coordinate its programs with other schools and school systems.

Responding to Tribal Concerns

Interior officials countered the skepticism of some with repeated assurances that the series of "minisummits" demonstrates the department's commitment to take tribal positions into account in policymaking.

In an interview here, Eddie F. Brown, the assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said that although past relations between the b.i.a. and the tribes had often been "couched in strong paternalism ... the reality is that tribal governments will no longer stand for that."

In fact, the educational priorities announced by Mr. Lujan draw heavily on suggestions made by tribal officials during interviews and site visits conducted by Mr. Brown.

The goals also reflect the responses of 170 tribal leaders to a November letter in which the assistant secretary asked them to list their educational concerns.

According to an analysis of the responses provided by the department, 68 percent of the leaders expressed the belief that parental involvement would have to be improved. An additional 40 percent said that early-childhood education "was critical" to the academic success of Indian children. And 60 percent said more and better trained counselors were needed on the reservations.

Also listed among the tribal leaders' priorities was increased efforts to make the curriculum more culturally relevant. The need to recruit more Indian teachers was cited as a top concern by 48 percent of the respondents.

Some 44 percent said that finding more money for education programs was a key to retaining good teachers and administrators. Salaries at bia and tribally controlled schools are not comparable to those at surrounding schools, they said, leaving tribal authorities "unable to compete" in hiring.

Mr. Lujan pointed out that increasing teachers' salaries at bia schools is a priority in the proposed fiscal 1991 budget submitted to the Congress by the President this month.

In the Interior Department's proposed budget of $231 million, Indian education, over all, will have $16.5 million more than last year, an increase of approximately 7 percent.

At a press conference, Secretary Lujan said that, although the increase is small, it should be viewed in the context of an Interior Department budget facing $500 million in cuts.

'We Can't Wait Around'

The summit comes at a historically opportune time, Mr. Brown and others here noted, as various constituencies begin to focus on the problems faced by Indian students.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos has announced that he will soon be appointing members to a national panel charged with conducting a wide-ranging survey of the state of Indian education. Its work, he said, will represent an "Indian Nations At Risk," a reference to the landmark reform study A Nation At Risk.

And late last year, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Committee on Investigations issued a lengthy report calling for a "New Federalism" for Indian tribes, with funds now channeled through the bia going directly to tribal governments that meet certain agreed-upon criteria.

The Congress also last year approved a $500,000 request for planning funds for a White House Conference on Indian Education. It is scheduled to be held next year.

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