Tattered Promise

Tribal leaders point to deteriorating BIA schools as a symbol of the government's unfulfilled pledge to educate Indian children.

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The wind can whip fierce off the Continental Divide that cuts a path through this town, battering the western windows in Patricia Keathley's classroom at the Navajo Dlo'ay azhi Community School.

Keathley's elementary school class sits under a ceiling of whitewashed vigas--beams the size of full-grown trees--in a sandstone school built in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration.

When snow spread over the dusty playground this winter, it also fell inside Keathley's classroom, blowing in through cracks in a roof that's been patched more times than principal Amy Whitekiller Mathis can recall in her 20 years here.

About 200 miles away, officials at the Santa Fe Indian School moved 200 middle schoolers off campus last fall, abandoning two dozen classrooms and 222 dormitory beds because of hazardous conditions. One safety expert last year called the sprawling campus "the most dangerous educational facilities in the state of New Mexico." Among the problems found in the century-old campus: inadequate fire escape routes, outdated fire alarms, and sprinkler systems that weren't hooked up because of insufficient water supply and pressure.

And on the Zia Indian reservation, 60 miles west of Santa Fe, children still go to class in a 1929 adobe school, where deep cracks show through plaster troweled over the walls in an attempt to stop further decay. But most classes in the pre-K-6 school are held in so called temporary portable classrooms—some of which have sat on campus since the 1970s.

These schools are all part of the US. Bureau of Indian Affairs system, paid for and, in some cases, run by the federal government to educate American Indian students who live on or near reservations. Unlike most public schools, whose local communities typically draw on their tax bases to pay for school facilities, the areas most BIA schools serve have no tax base.

Instead, the schools rely on the seesaw political process of yearly appropriations from Congress for everything from paying utility bills and teacher salaries to maintenance and construction.

"Congress is out there making decisions about the Native American population, but they don't see the conditions on the reservation," says Amadeo Shije, a father of five who, much like a state's chief executive, serves as the governor of the Zia community. "This isn't their back yard."

To be sure, BIA schools are far from alone in the facilities problems they face. There are schools nationwide that are overcrowded, unsafe, run-down, or otherwise less than ideal for teaching and learning. But a recent US. General Accounting Office report ranked the BIA schools among the nation's worst in physical condition.

That's no surprise to many in Indian Country. Congressional hearings and government reports have raised the issue for years. And now, many say, years of neglect and funding that hasn't kept pace with need have snowballed into a problem too big to ignore.

"We're trying to do 21st-century education in 19th-century buildings," says Kevin Gover, the US. Department of Interior's assistant secretary for Indian affairs. "It's just wrong for the school system the United States government is responsible for to be at the end of the line."

The BIA faces a $743 million school repair backlog including $148 million worth of items that affect the health and safety of students and teachers. That price tag doesn't include the 60 schools that the BIA says are in "urgent need" of replacement.

While acknowledging that many of the nation's school districts could use federal help to build or repair facilities, as President Clinton has proposed, lawmakers like Sen. Pete V. Domenici say the federal government has to put the BIA schools at the top of the list. The New Mexico Republican represents the state with the highest percentage of American Indians

"Before we take care of schools we don't own, that the US. government doesn't own and is not obligated to support, we ought to take care of our own business," Domenici said last year in a congressional hearing on conditions in BIA schools. "Nobody [else] is going to build the Indian schools."

For their part, American Indian leaders say their deteriorating schools represent a broken promise. They point to a pledge the federal government made in the 1800s through hundreds of treaties signed with tribes in exchange for land. The pledge: to educate Indian children.

American Indians make up just under 1 percent of the US population. Only about 10 percent-or 53,000-of Indian students attend BIA schools, which include 173 boarding and day schools and 14 stand-alone dormitories. Children from the reservations' farthest reaches live in the dormitories so they can attend public schools that otherwise would remain inaccessible. While the BIA supports all the schools financially, it runs just under half of them; tribes operate the rest under grants or contracts with the federal government.

In addition to the BIA schools, the federal government runs the Department of Defense schools, which serve 115,000 children of military personnel stationed on bases across the United States and abroad. The DOD schools face facility problems, too, but the official word is that, on the whole, they're in good shape.

"The breadth of commitment to the military is nationwide," says Jim Jarrard, a spokesman for the Defense Department schools.

Last year, when Congress mulled the president's $20 billion school construction proposal, some politicians and education analysts raised philosophical concerns over injecting a federal role in K-12 school construction—a realm traditionally left to state and local government.

Few brought up the fact that the federal government already is in the business of building and renovating schools when it comes to the BlA. And when President Clinton stumped for his construction plan last spring, he hit a school in Chicago, not Indian Country.

"Many of the BIA schools are in the same dire situations as inner-city schools. But there's not a lot of recognition of that," says Lorraine Edmo, the executive director of the National Indian Education Association.

That may be changing. Last month, the president again outlined plans for the federal government to help underwrite the interest on bonds to pay for building and modernizing schools—including BIA schools. But experts caution that it is still unclear how the bonds would help tribes because many do not have a dependable revenue base to pay back the money.

It's tough to pressure Congress to ante up federal dollars for BIA school facilities, educators and tribal officials say, when they have to defend those schools' very existence. Critics wonder why such schools are needed when most Indian students attend regular public schools.

But, many Indian leaders argue, BIA schools give children a chance to go to school in their own communities, to go to culturally sensitive schools that help preserve native traditions and languages, and to go to schools governed, by varying degrees, by all-Indian school boards.

States and towns are often loath to take over education for children in remote areas because the cost can be steep. So in some areas, BIA schools are the only schools around. Isolation can quickly ratchet up the facilities cost; some schools need their own firetrucks or water towers. Some have to house maintenance workers, and boarding schools house and feed children.

The BIA's entire budget last year was $1.7 billion. Yet the estimated cost to wipe clean the school facility backlog and replace the 60 worst schools edges toward $2 billion. And schools are just one slice of the bureau's mission; they have to compete for dollars with law enforcement (and facilities like jails and police stations) and housing, among other needs. When push comes to shove, Gover says, spending $20 million to beef up law enforcement on reservations nationwide is often an easier sell than spending $20 million on one school that benefits one state.

Geography tends to limit political support for BIA schools. Though they're spread across 23 states, the schools are densely packed into just five--Arizona, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, and Washington.

"This is simply not a national issue," Gover says. "But it's clearly a federal one."

Established in 1824 as part of the War Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs originally had no education mission. Congress funneled aid to various religious groups that had been running Indian schools long before the federal government ever got involved. That changed in the 1870s, when the Indian wars were winding down and the federal government was looking for a way to appease tribes. Government schools became part of the plan; they were to serve as tools to "civilize" or Americanize Indian children.

By the late 1800s, the BIA had started to create a two-part education system for Indian children that continues today: boarding schools, most located off the reservations, and day schools, located on tribal lands.

Some of those turn-of-the-century buildings, including former missionary schools and abandoned military forts and hospitals, are still being used. Even more modern school buildings have had their share of problems, critics say. They point to a building spree in the 1960s that resulted in cookie-cutter concrete-block schools with virtually no insulation and flat roofs that drain poorly. Some were built in the middle of flood plains or in 300 feet of sand. Many of those schools have reached the end of their useful lives, says Norman Suazo, who oversees planning and implementation for the BIA's facilities-management and construction center, based in Albuquerque.

The BIA has long been a major source of jobs for American Indians--and remains so despite staff cutbacks in recent years. But the bureau also has long been the target of complaints of ineptitude and Byzantine bureaucracy. For years, tribes and educators have complained that it takes too many steps to get a school built. Historically, the BIA has received funding to build just one or two replacement schools a year, even though the agency has identified 60 schools that currently are in "urgent need" of new buildings. The government hasn't even accepted applications for new schools since 1991. Congress in 1992 froze a list of 16 schools that ranked at the top of the priority list after tribes expressed frustration at moving on and off and around the list year after year. Seven years after the list was frozen, six of the 16 schools are still awaiting funding.

Once a school makes it onto the priority list, it can take eight years from the time formal construction planning starts to the time the new school's doors open. Efforts are now under way to whittle that time to three years and give priority to schools with health and safety problems.

It's clear that while the education side of the BIA school equation has increasingly moved toward local control, the facilities side remains highly centralized.

"Whatever Congress and the federal government determine is our priority, that's what we get and that's all we get," says Carol Barbero, a Washington lawyer who specializes in Indian law.

Charles Jaynes' priority is safety.

Every BIA school is supposed to have a yearly safety inspection. But Jaynes, the BIA chief of safety management, says tight resources mean that only about half get such a formal check to determine whether they comply with fire, electrical, and other standard building codes.

Jaynes estimates that half of BIA school fire-alarm systems are inoperative; some are so old, he says, that the parts needed to fix them are no longer available. To compensate, schools conduct patrols to keep watch for signs of fire.

Jaynes says that none of the BIA schools is "imminently hazardous" and that in his 20-year tenure with the bureau, no children or school staff members have suffered serious facilities-related injuries.

"But as far as I'm concerned," he says, "it's pure luck."

Gover, the assistant secretary for Indian affairs, says he doesn't want to wait to see what happens if that luck runs out. Last year, on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Indian reservation, which straddles both Dakotas, elementary students spent half the year attending classes in a gym after fluorescent-light fixtures leaking toxins linked to cancer were discovered in their school. Contamination levels from the chemical PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were high enough to warrant studies by environmental and health officials, though they concluded no one suffered adverse health effects from the exposure. The discovery at Standing Rock led the BIA to order a nationwide survey of its buildings for PCBs.

"It's inevitable that something tragic is going to happen in one of these schools," Gover says. "With this backlog, you're rolling the dice every year."

Tucked under stepped red-rock mesas, the Dlo'ay azhi Community School inhabits a small slice of Navajo land, separated by 45 miles from the main Navajo reservation, the country's largest, with an area roughly the size of West Virginia spreading through New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

An unincorporated town of about 4,000, Thoreau sits 103 miles from Albuquerque and feels a world apart.

The BIA's K-6 school reflects the realities of life on the reservation, where unemployment hits 60 percent. Of the school's 142 children, 87 live at the BIA school on weekdays. Although some families live far from campus, many live near town but board their children--starting at age 6--because they don't have the means to support them, says Mathis, the school principal.

Teachers at Dlo'ay azhi--"little prairie dog" in Navajo--say on cold mornings they can smell the fragrant pi¤on or cedar smoke on some children's clothes from the wood stoves their families use for cooking and heat. Some still live in traditional hogans, structures built of earth walls supported by timbers. On the school bus route, dirt roads far outnumber the paved.

Grace Gallegos is the veteran manager of the girls' dorm. She plays surrogate mom, counselor, and nurse to 48 girls in a 1950s building.Inside, a Spice Girls poster hangs at the entry to row after row of wooden bunkbeds. Helen Saunders, the grandmother of five students at the school, plays a drum and sings Navajo songs into the late afternoon with girls like 7-year-old Amber Abeita, clad in Tweety Bird overalls and munching Fritos.

Earlier this year, members of the dorm staff had to maintain a fire watch and keep air horns on hand to wake the children in case of fire because the alarms weren't reliable, says Bob Villareal, who oversees facilities for 18 Navajo schools.

"I just crossed my fingers that nothing would happen," Gallegos says, taking a break from mandatory after-school reading time with a gaggle of girls spread across a common-room sofa. "We kept one eye on the kids, the other on the building for fire."

The school is slated for new fire alarms and a new roof this year, and teacher Patricia Keathley hopes that means no more snowy days inside her classroom.

Tutors work one-on-one with children in corners and hallways; the school has made a big reading push and, though most children still read below grade level, they've made steady gains. The town has no library, but the BIA school does.

"We're proud of this," Mathis says, running her hand over the top of a donated wooden card catalog.

Like many Navajo schools, Dlo'ay azhi doesn't have Internet access. Although more than 100 BIA schools are wired for the Internet, roughly half of those have access now because telephone lines in more rural areas can't handle the traffic.

There's no gym here, and when it rains, the Cherokee principal says, the dirt playground is too muddy for recess. The steam used to heat the 1935 main building seeps into the sandstone, causing it to erode. Decayed wooden drainage spouts jut from the exterior walls.

Mathis says sometimes she has to dip into money for education programs to take care of facilities, such as the fence that encircles the school to keep the cattle, horses, and the occasional transient human from wandering around campus. She's recruited missionary groups to paint buildings over the summer.

"You do what you can," she says, noting that her school is not on the priority replacement list. "But if we're going to be in the education business, let's be in the education business. The federal government should be ashamed of itself. We're not just sitting here wasting government money. We are needed here in this community."

The school's immediate neighbors include a Roman Catholic school and a regular public elementary school. But, Mathis is quick to note, the BIA school had a hefty waiting list last fall. She gets Indian students expelled from the public schools who have nowhere else to go. And she gets parents who like the fact that all the students, and much of the staff, are Navajo.

"It's about ownership," Mathis says.

Santa Fe conjures up images of centuries-old, thick-walled adobe churches and houses that draw throngs of tourists to the Land of Enchantment's high-desert capital. While the gently sloped buildings are undeniably beautiful, Santa Fe Indian School officials say, they're not exactly what you'd want in a modern-day school.

But that's exactly what this vast 104-acre campus holds. The Santa Fe Indian School boasts the BIA's oldest building still in use as a classroom--circa 1891. The newest buildings on campus date to the 1960s.

Like many BIA schools, the Santa Fe campus is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, which bureau officials say can pit the need to renovate for educational or safety reasons against the need to preserve a building's architectural integrity.

About 70 percent of the school's 550 students in grades 7-12 board at the school, which draws Indian students from across New Mexico and is governed by a school board appointed by the state's 19 pueblo governors. Educationally, the school is considered a model; its graduates over the years make up a virtual "Who's Who" of Indian community leaders. But its facilities have proved a nemesis, says George Gomez, who joined the school as an administrator three years ago after working 30 years in the state's regular public schools.

Last fall, officials delayed the start of school for two weeks and moved the entire middle school off campus because of health and safety concerns. After three independent reports documenting hazards on campus, and meetings in Washington with BIA officials and New Mexico's congressional delegation, the school was granted emergency funds to lease space from St. Catherine's Indian School, a defunct private school a few miles away.

Gomez says lobbying Congress is just part and parcel of running a federally supported school.

"We get out and hustle," he says. "We have to."

Weller Architects, an Albuquerque-based firm that reviewed the Santa Fe campus at the BIA's behest, estimates that it would cost more than $50 million to overhaul the campus; a comparable new school would cost $38 million. The firm figures that since 1980, the BIA has spent $10 million on maintenance and operations, yet the campus repair backlog is still $18 million.

"I question the priority system if this school is not even on the radar screen" for replacement, says William Davis, a Weller architect.

The BIA is asking Congress for a new math, science, and technology center at Santa Fe Indian School.

Over the years, Davis says, spotty upgrades to the campus' electrical system have created an overloaded patchwork system that carries the potential hazard of electrical shock and fire. The antiquated water system is inadequate: In some dorms, students have had to wake at 3 a.m. to shower because hot water is scarce. Though the water supply and pressure are inadequate to make dorm fire sprinklers functional, the sprinklers were installed, apparently, because the BIA thought it would quickly get the dollars to remedy the water infrastructure problems--but the money never came.

At the middle school's temporary home at St. Catherine's--which Santa Fe Indian School officials say will continue to be home until the most serious problems are fixed--8th grade English teacher Cathy McCachren has settled into her new classroom. A veteran public school teacher, McCachren says that, from an educational perspective, she prefers the BIA school. But when she first saw her classroom on the Santa Fe main campus two years ago, she was taken aback.

"I thought, 'What did I get myself into?' I left a brand-new classroom with huge storage closets in the public schools. And then this," she says of her old, "claustrophobic" room, which had virtually no ventilation, water-stained--and sometimes falling--ceiling tiles, and no escape windows in case of fire.

On the main campus, Gomez points to a punch clock on the now-evacuated second floor of the girls' main dorm. Dorm staff members have to clock in to show that they're making rounds for the fire watch that protects the 64 girls still living on the 1907 building's first floor. Gomez walks out onto the narrow second-floor landing, which leads to a fire escape. But the landing is supported by wooden beams that, in case of fire, could easily burn away to ash, making the fire escape moot.

Senior Amanda Montoya, an 18-year-old from Taos Pueblo, was 13 when she first came to live at the Santa Fe school. She came, she says, because "I knew I'd be comfortable here." Her stark room, which she shares with three other girls on the main dorm's first floor, holds two bunk beds, a few bureaus, scuffed wood floors, and partially exposed pipes crawling up the wall. Montoya says she feels safe, even though last year she lived in a room that is now shut down.

"I have too many things to worry about my senior year," she says. "I won't think about safety until there's actually a fire."

Of the 19 pueblos that govern the Santa Fe Indian School, nine have casinos. Increasingly, debate has turned to whether the success of some tribal casinos and other reservation businesses justifies a redistribution of federal money, whether for schools, housing, or health care.

Though tribes aren't required to reveal their profits and spending--and most don't--one 1997 government report found that just eight casinos (none apparently in New Mexico) accounted for 40 percent of the $4.5 billion annual Indian casino revenue.

But, Indian leaders say, even tribes that could afford to replace deteriorating BIA schools in their communities often choose not to. They don't want to let the U.S. government off the hook for what they see as its obligation to the Indian people.

The Zia Pueblo, 35 miles from Albuquerque, has no casino. The tribe, most of whose 750 members live on the reservation, gains revenue from enterprises such as an open-pit gypsum mine and leases from television and radio antennae that traverse its 104,000 acres.

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt last fall visited the Zia Day School to focus attention on BIA school needs. Zia fills the 16th spot on the priority list of 16 schools to be replaced. The earliest Zia is likely to see its new building open is 2004.

A 1991 report by the Interior Department's inspector general detailed a number of safety deficiencies at Zia, including a lack of fire alarms and frequent backups in the school's sewer system. Those problems have since been resolved, but new ones have quickly taken their place.

Corroded wooden steps lead to "temporary" portables that, in some cases, have sat on campus for more than 20 years. A few portables have just one exit--a fire hazard. Tanks that provide gas for the school sit too close to classrooms; BIA officials expect funding this year to do the infrastructure work needed to move the tanks a safe distance away.

Despite the facilities challenges, Zia Day School is the anchor of a community that sees itself in a battle for cultural survival. From 1598, when the Spanish colonized the area, to 1890, the Zia population dropped from 15,000 to fewer than 100. Just a fraction of the 71 pre-K-6 pupils at Zia are truly fluent in Keres, the tribe's unwritten native language.

Teacher Mary Shije, 57, didn't speak any English until she came to Zia Day School; she didn't learn to read until 3rd grade. When she attended Zia--in the same 1929 adobe building in use today--she and other students were punished by white teachers for speaking Keres. Now, Shije is trying to keep the unwritten language alive.

"Our kids need to hear the language. And they're not going to get it over there in the regular public schools," says Shije, whose five children attended Zia Day School.

The community hopes to extend the new school through the 8th grade to bring back middle schoolers who now ride the bus to public schools some 20 miles away or who board at Santa Fe Indian School. Ultimately, tribal leaders say, they'd like to see a K-12 school on the reservation.

Zia illustrates the myriad challenges the BIA regularly grapples with. It is crammed onto less than one acre because that's all the tribe allotted when the school was first built in the 1920s. Just one building on campus, a portable installed in 1997, meets all current-day codes. The playground sits in a flood plain. And although the new school site was vetted by tribal religious leaders, one leader has raised questions about whether the new school would block the spiritual pathways that need to be traveled in certain ceremonies. Such issues have slowed projects elsewhere over the years, Suazo of the BIA central facilities office says.

Looking down from Western Skies Road, the Zia school backs into the Jemez Mountains. Prescilla Pino, a Zia school board member, surveys the school as the late afternoon sun glints gold onto pi¤on-dotted hills that feed into the mountain range. To Pino, the hope for a new school is especially personal. When her daughter graduated from Zia Day School, she opted to attend the regular public schools for middle and high school rather than continue at another BIA school.

"She told me she'd rather be in the outside world than in the Indian world," Pino says. Now, she says, her teenage daughter wants to become a teacher at the new Zia school.

"That makes me very proud," Pino says, as smoke rises from behind a house, curling from an outdoor clay oven. "This is our future."

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Page 40-47

Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Tattered Promise
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Web Resources
  • Get some facts on students and schools funded by the Office of Indian Education Programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  • Read "Native Americans Stand Their Ground," from the Honor the Earth
  • Read "Passing on Traditions, Preparing Children: Navajo Teachers Lead the Way," a 1996 article from a Ford Foundation Report.
  • "Schools Online," operates an Adopt-a-School program, enabling sponsors to help Native American schools get Internet access.
  • Read the transcript of the Senate Appropriations Hearing on the FY 1998 Budget Request for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, April 1997.
  • And, read this year's Interior Budget in Brief.
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