Cavazos, Lujan Promise Focus on Indian Schools

By Julie A. Miller — April 05, 1989 5 min read

Searching for ways to improve the education of Native Americans, Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos and Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. made “unprecedented” joint visits last week to five federally supported Indian schools.

“We want to start assessing the state of Indian education in this country, to find some things that work, to move those good programs into other areas so that the rest of the nation can benefit from it,” Mr. Cavazos told reporters at one stop on the tour.

He and Mr. Lujan said they planned to consult further with education experts and to consolidate their findings in one or more reports, which they hope to release in the fall.

The secretaries described their three-state journey as the beginning of a joint initiative in Indian education. The trip signaled a new and closer working relationship between their agencies, they said.

The Education Department funnels money to Indian schools both through a categorical program and through such general programs as Chapter 1. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs administers a school-aid program and operates 111 schools. It also supports 70 schools run by tribes under a contractual arrangement.

Praise, Disappointment

School officials and tribal leaders, who were present at several of the schools, praised the secretaries for their interest in Indian education.

“It lets the children and the community know that someone is interested in them, and it calls national attention to Indian schools,” said Jannita Complo, principal of the Jemez Day School in Jemez Pueblo, N.M.

But some officials said they had hoped Mr. Cavazos and Mr. Lujan would back up their accolades with more federal funds--something they conceded was unlikely in the current atmosphere of fiscal austerity.

Joe Frazier, principal of the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif., asked for money to help the boarding school’s new college-preparatory program, raise teacher salaries, and offset budget cuts he said the school had absorbed during the Reagan Administration.

“We had hoped for more from the new Administration,” he said. “We’ll have to look for other resources.”

Bob Chiago, director of education for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation, bluntly called the secretaries’ visit to the Salt River Day School a “publicity stunt.”

“As far as the academic program of the school, it doesn’t deserve to be lauded,” he said, adding that tribal officials are considering taking over management of the K-6 school and adding secondary-level classes.

Mr. Chiago said he and other officials were considering such changes “not because of what I’ve found in the day school, but what I’ve found in the public schools.”

Some 90 percent of Salt River stu8dents drop out before completing high school, he noted, while 75 percent of reservation students who attend public elementary schools do so.

“I applaud [the secretaries’] interest, but this is really just an attempt to impress the media,” Mr. Chiago argued.

Fighting Bad Publicity

An aide to Mr. Lujan said the Salt River school was chosen largely because of its exemplary drug- and alcohol-abuse program.

He also acknowledged that one goal of the trip was to counteract negative publicity about bia schools. Most recently, a Congressional panel aired charges of mismanagement and the sexual abuse of children in bia schools. (See Education Week, March 1, 1989.)

Four of the five schools on the itinerary--Sherman, Salt River, Jemez, and the Santa Fe Indian School--have been recognized by either the Education Department or the bia for model programs.

At the request of Mr. Cavazos, though, an elementary school in Isleta Pueblo, about 15 miles south of Albuquerque, was added to the schedule at the last minute. He wanted to see an “ordinary school” as well, Mr. Cavazos explained.

“We don’t think that Indian education is in as sorry a state as some would have you believe,” Mr. Lujan said. “It’s not terminal, but it needs some improvements.”

“It’s very clear that the problems you find amongst Indian-education programs are not dissimilar to what you find in the regular public-school setting: dropouts, low achievement, lack of parental involvement,” Mr. Cavazos added.

Restructuring Rejected

Mr. Lujan said he did not think the bia needed to be restructured, and added that he had no plans to phase out schools.

He also said he did not favor the proposal made by Ross Swimmer, head of the bia early in the Reagan Administration, to assimilate into the public-school system any Indian schools not taken over by tribes, which have the right to contract with the agency to run schools themselves. The plan was staunchly opposed by Indian groups.

“It has to be the wish of the local community, like the curriculum,’' Mr. Lujan argued.

Community Interest High

The secretaries said they were struck by the high level of interest among members of the surrounding communities in the affairs of the schools they visited. Recommendations for achieving that kind of public participation would be a major focus of their report, they vowed.

“How involved are the parents? How involved is the community? How involved are the school officials?” Mr. Lujan asked. “That seems to be the ingredient that is necessary for a quality education.”

In addition to calling for stepped-up efforts to involve parents in their children’s education, the secretaries urged school officials to forge partnerships with local industry and higher-education institutions.

“Take down your ivy-covered walls and get involved in the community,” Mr. Cavazos admonished college officials.

At Sherman Indian High School, for example, Mr. Frazier’s special college-preparatory program has been launched in collaboration with the University of California’s Riverside and Irvine campuses. Faculty are assisting in developing curricula, training staff, and recruiting students into higher education.

“It’s the first time in 200 years Indian education has a foothold in the college-preparatory track,” said Kogee Thomas, co-director of the Irvine campus’s office of relations with schools and colleges.

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