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School Built by Miss. Indian Tribe 'Breaks New Ground'

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Special to Education Week

Philadelphia, Miss.--Cradled in the rolling hills of southeastern Mississippi is a monument to the Choctaw Indians' drive to free themselves from almost a century of federal control--a new, state-of-the-art elementary school.

The 52,000-square-foot, $6.4-million school is the first in the nation to be planned, designed, and built by a tribe rather than by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In what has been heralded as a model arrangement, the Choctaws are also the only tribe to have contracted with the bia for complete control of all education programs on the reservation.

"The Choctaws have broken new ground in their [school] initiative," said Joe Christie, deputy education director at the bia in Washington. "They have really taken hold of this project."

Last week, nearly 2,000 visitors from the bia, the Congress, and the six Choctaw communities on the reservation gathered at Pearl River Elementary School to mark its official dedication.

The classrooms in the 343-student school, which opened last month, are equipped with videocassette recorders, television sets, and refrigerators. Microscopes stand at attention in the science lab. The library can hold up to 80,000 books. A na4ture trail winds through the pines out back.

A suite of rooms dedicated to students with special needs has, among other custom features, a kitchenette, a shower, and a "time out" room.

"We have anything we could ever want," said Andrea Hemphill, a 3rd-grade teacher at Pearl River.

'A Turning Point'

The thoroughly modern environment is also thoroughly Choctaw.

Students speak their native language as well as English while at school. Two huge papier-mache sculptures of a Choctaw princess and brave, made by students, tower over the lobby.

Even the school's windows are arranged in inverted, stair-step patterns, similar to shapes woven into traditional Choctaw clothing.

Chief Phillip Martin said the school, built with federal funds, rivals any of the 465 elementary schools in Mississippi.

"This is a real turning point," said Chief Martin, who has led the 5,000-member tribe for two decades. "The kids in this school have the best atmosphere for learning. They are proud, and they want to come to school."

In its contract with the bia in July 1989, the tribe agreed to take control of all six Choctaw schools scattered over reservation land in three Mississippi counties.

In addition, the tribe operates Head Start programs for about 200 children, a child-care program, and extensive adult-education courses.

Other tribes have contracted to operate specific schools, but the Choctaws are the only tribe to operate an entire system. Of the nation's 408,000 Native American children, 12,000 attend contract schools, with the rest in bureau-operated, public, or private schools.

Last fall, a bipartisan committee of the U.S. Senate proposed the gradual reduction of federal oversight for Indian programs and the rechanneling of aid money directly to tribal governments. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1989.)

In response, officials of the Interior Department, which includes the bia, noted that it was already taking steps to increase self-determination among the tribes.

A tribal department was created to manage 429 employees and the more than $3 million in federal funds that comes in annually for the six schools, preschool programs, and adult clasel15lses. All enroll only Choctaws.

"The department is a very exciting concept because it is really where we believe we need to go in the future," Mr. Christie of the bia said. "We will be looking at the Choctaws as a model."

Chief Martin said the move to control schools was a natural step.

"We had already assumed control of our law enforcement, social services, and health care," he said. "After that, we felt comfortable taking over the school system."

The Choctaws were also frustrated with student test scores that were consistently below the state average.

"The bia operated our schools since the 1920's, and it has not provided the kind of education we are entitled to," Chief Martin said. "They have received a lot of money and have built schools around their own standards. The total result has been failure."

Acknowledging that the Choctaw students' test scores did not improve dramatically in the first year of tribal control, Chief Martin said, ''In a year or two, we should see our scores go up."

"There's nothing wrong with our kids," he added. "The system we have been under so long has hampered us."

Enrollment Is Up

Enrollment in the Choctaw schools, meanwhile, is up 22 percent from two years ago--to 1,200 students, some of whom are returning from nearby public schools.

One reason for the students' return is the role that parents are allowed to play in the schools, tribal officials say. When control was shifted to the tribe and all bia employees had to be replaced, committees of parents interviewed applicants for every job, from janitor to principal.

"We tried to see if the applicant really understood what we actually needed for our kids," said Curtis Willis, chairman of the parents' committee.

Parents also got a say in the design of the new school. They wanted a covered entrance so children could be dropped off dry on rainy days, and they wanted parent conference rooms in the school.

Teachers asked for windows that would open and lots of storage space. Chief Martin asked for a bell tower.

"We not only have a great school, which gives us credibility, but we are more sensitive to the conditions of the Choctaws," Pat Gaffney, the school's principal, said. "What we try to do is provide the best of two worlds."

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