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Head of E.D.'s Indian-Education Office Aims To Build Schools' 'Indian-Ness'

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When John W. Tippeconnic 3rd took the reins of the Education Department's office of Indian education three months ago, interest in improving education for Native Americans had never been higher.4

The issue had been identified as a top priority by the White House, the Congress, the Education Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and several state education deparyments. A member of the Comanche tribe who is also part Cherokee, Mr. Tipeconnic is the first permanent director of the Indian-education office in almost a decade.4

Mr. Tippeconnic, who served as the associate deputy commissioner of Indian education from 1978 to 1980 during the Carter Administration, was an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University before taking the Education Department post. He also directed the university's Center for Indian Education.4

Mr. Tippeconnic also has served as president of Navajo Community College and has taught in elementary and junior high schools.

Staff Writer Peter West interiewed Mr. Tippeconnic last month.

How do you differentiate between "Indian education" and education in general?

It's a complicated kind of question, but I would start by [explaining] the nation-to-nation relationship that exists between the federal government and Indian tribes. That's a very definitive legal relationship.

The federal government--L through treaties, Supreme Court decisions, and executive orders--has a responsibility to educate Indian children. Our program is a part of that responsibility, and the bia's program is a part of that responsibility.

But if we look at it from a formal education perspective, then it also means that we educate Indian students from the perspective of what they bring to a classroom. That we respect their "Indian-ness," that we respect their language and their culture....

We should take into account individual learning styles; we should take into account language skills and how language affects learning styles and teaching styles.

Indian education means that we should ensure, in sum, that the learning style and the teaching style work with one another.

We should also realize that schools and teachers, not just stu dents and parents, have a responsi bility to change and to adapt, to build "Indian-ness" into the schools.

Do you have a vision for what the programs administered by the office of Indian education should achieve?

I'm glad you said "vision," because that's a term I'm using a lot.

My vision is for the office of Indian education and its programs to be held in high regard.

Part of that vision is just to bring awareness to people who are involved--and to those who are not so involved--in Indian education about what the Indian situation is in this country and in particular what Indian education issues are.

It's been my experience that, be cause we're small in numbers, many times we're overlooked. ...

I have a vision for our programs to be very effective and to provide lead ership, national leadership, when it comes to the education of Indian people.

What are the top one or two problems facing Native AmeriL can students and those charged with their education?

The dropout problem with Ameri can Indian students is a key issue.

We're trying to put our finger on it, but there are so many variables 4 involved in the dropout problem that it's hard to generalize from place to place.

It's very hard to say there's a na tional dropout rate because it varies so much from school to school and locale to locale.

I also think another is the need for more qualified, competent Indian people in education.

We really have a need for more In dian teachers. I'm not saying that Indian teachers necessarily are bet ter for Indian students, but I think the likelihood that Indian teachers will be effective with Indian stuL dents is higher.

We really need them in areas where there are high concentrations of Indian students. One of the diffi culties is just getting people to stay. It takes a special kind of person to live on a reservation and to deal with the day-to-day environment situations that reservation life rings.

In a lot of places, we have pools of Indian people working in schools. They're the paraprofessionals, Lthey're the teachers' aides. It's a pool of people waiting to be trained and repared.

I'd like us to begin to develop pro grams to address that pocket of peo ple, to bring degree-granting proL grams to them, because the ikelihood that they're going to stay where they are is great.

How will you draw on your varied background as a classroom teacher, a teacher educa tor, and an educational researcher to assist you in achieving your goals?

There are so many good things that are happening in the field, and they're overshadowed by the negaive concerns and the problems that exist.I don't want to minimize the prob lems and difficulties because they're real, and sometimes they're overL whelming. But I want to highlight the successes we're having.

And I know some of that success [because] I've been involved in it. I've experienced it, and I think that helps in my role here.

The mandate of your office is to reach Indian students who live in a variety of areas. Although many Indian children attend res ervation schools, many others are educated in urban areas. How do you address the needs of all Indian students?

One of the approaches we are go ing to take is to identify programs that are successful and share their experiences. There is a need to look at urban situations because the needs can be different. In urban areas, there seems to be a lot of attention on dropouts and attendance problems. And there are situations, like in Phoenix, where kids are mobile; They go back and forth between ur ban schools and reservation schools.

In an urban school, the likelihood that you're going to have many dif ferent tribes represented is great. In a reservation school, the likelihood is that you're going to have a single tribe. In a rural area, Indian kids are going to be way in the minority.

It's a challenge to local school districts to develop meaningful programs that are going to reach across a population that consists of 20 to 30 different tribes, but I think it can be done. I think we in this office can provide some leadership in this area, providing some help to an urban area that might be frustrated in [its] attempts to provide service.

What advice could you give non-Indian superintendents who may be inexperienced with the learning styles of Indian students?

One thing is to understand that Indian students are quite diverse. There's a general tendency in this country to group us together.

It's important for them to make some kind of assessment as to how much the Indian students are attached to their language and culture and how much will that language and culture influence their learnL ing.

And rather than looking at a deficit model, they should ask, "How can we turn that around and find strength in a person that speaks Navajo or Hopi or in a person that has a cultural belief that is different from ours?" It's not just going to happen, but I think it's up to them to challenge teachers to use whatever students bring with them to a classroom to learn whatever that teacher's teaching.

Is racism a factor in the way Indian students generally are perceived by non-Indian educators? It may be more of a factor than we realize. As teachers, we don't like to feel we practice those kinds of things.

In reality, it does exist, and I don't think we can ignore it.

But I like to be optimistic and to think it's something that can be dealt with, for example, through inservice training for teachers, administrators, and school-board memL bers.

By the same token, don't many Indian-education programs suf fer as a result of tribal politics? I don't think politics is any more a factor [for Indian-education programs] than in education in general.

Politics just goes hand-in-hand with education. You can't separate them, and it's a myth to think that they function in isolation from one another.

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