Equity & Diversity

In Effort to Fix Tribal Schools, Feds Face Doubts

By Corey Mitchell — January 13, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
Students and faculty say the Pledge of Allegiance during an assembly at the Crystal Boarding School, in Navajo Nation in Crystal, N.M., which is run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education. The Obama administration is pushing ahead with plans to improve BIE schools by giving tribes greater autonomy.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of the schools directly operated by the Bureau of Indian Education. The BIE operates 57 schools.

An Obama administration proposal to turn more control of Bureau of Indian Education schools over to tribes is facing resistance in some corners of Indian Country, even among those who could benefit from the plans.

Even as the White House has released reports that offer a stark appraisal of past failures in federal education policy for Native Americans, some tribal leaders are rebuffing offers of aid and pledges of new supports for Indian education from the federal government.

The Oglala Sioux tribe of Pine Ridge, S.D., is turning down $200,000, its share of $2.5 million in grants to be awarded to entice tribes to take more control over educating their children. It was among six tribes that the U.S. Department of the Interior—the federal agency that oversees the Bureau of Indian Education—announced in November had been selected to receive “Sovereignty in Indian Education” enhancement funds.

Part of the administration’s push to improve the quality of education provided by the BIE, that money is dedicated to helping transform the bureau into a “school improvement organization” that assists tribally controlled schools rather than operating them.

BIE schools are some of the lowest-performing in the country, and the reorganization of the bureau comes after years of scathing reports from watchdog agencies, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and complaints from tribal educators about financial and academic mismanagement.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell—whose department is responsible for the 47,000 students enrolled in BIE schools—announced the creation of the competitive grants this past summer. At the time, some tribal leaders expressed deep concerns about the effort.

Charles “Monty” Roessel, the director of the BIE, understands the distrust. For too long, the federal government has left tribes out of the discussion about the education of Native American children, he said, but this new effort puts tribes in the driver’s seat with support from government officials.

“Education has been ‘done’ to tribes for too long,” Mr. Roessel said. “This [initiative] isn’t just dumping schools on the tribe. It’s asking, ‘What kind of support do you need?’ ”

Overcoming Distrust

Despite the acknowledgment from Obama administration officials that the federal government is largely to blame for the failures in American Indian education, the long-standing distrust of the BIE will be difficult to overcome, tribal educators said.

Dayna Brave Eagle, the director of the Oglala Sioux education department, said tribal leaders initially jumped at the opportunity to apply for the competitive grant, citing a need to wrest control from the BIE.

“The tribe needed to become more of a vocal player in education, teaching our students,” said Ms. Brave Eagle, who has taught in or led tribal schools for nearly 30 years.

But the enthusiasm shifted to exasperation among the tribe’s elected leaders, she said.

“Because of our past history with the bureau, it’s hard to know what [the agency’s] intent is,” Ms. Brave Eagle said.

Oglala Sioux tribal leadership did not respond to Education Week‘s questions about why they ultimately decided to refuse the federal aid.

Other tribes see the grant funds as an opportunity to begin to move beyond a past littered with broken promises.

Matthew Tso, a legislative analyst with the Navajo Nation Department of Dine Education, said tribal education leaders aim to use the federal money to work on curriculum alignment, among other efforts, for students in a sprawling network of districts that encompasses nearly 250 schools.

“The challenge for our leaders is ‘Do we stick with the status quo?’ ” Mr. Tso said. “We have to do something different to change the future of Navajo Nation.”

Students walk between buildings at the Little Singer Community School in Birdsprings, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation. The school is run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education, a long-troubled agency that the Obama administration has pledged to reorganize as part of a strategy to improve educational outcomes for Native American children.

Ahead of President Barack Obama’s appearance at the annual Tribal Nations Conference in December, a White House report acknowledged “a history of deeply troubling and destructive federal policies and actions” that has hurt Native communities, while it warned that progress today “continues to be hindered” by poor educational infrastructure.

President Obama’s appearance came just months after his administration rolled out the “Blueprint for Reform,” its vision for overhauling the BIE, which directly operates 57 schools for Native American students and oversees more than 120 others run under contract by tribes.

“We’re facing a couple hundred years of broken promises with these schools,” said Donald Yu, the chief school transformation officer in the Office of Indian Affairs, who is helping to oversee the BIE reorganization.

More than a third of American Indian children live in poverty, and just two-thirds graduate from high school—the lowest of any racial or ethnic demographic group, according to White House reports.

“Fragmented, balkanized” education systems across Indian Country have not helped solve the problems, Mr. Yu said.

“Without many urgently needed investments and reforms targeting Native youth in education and other high-impact areas, Native youth face even greater challenges in the future,” the White House report found.

New Resources, Efforts

In response, the president is expected to unveil a series of new steps to address challenges faced by Native American youths, inside the classroom and out.

That will include a new grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Education to finance programs to improve the college and career readiness of Native children, and a program launched in partnership with the Aspen Institute to improve access to leadership-development tools.

The administration will also convene two meetings on the issue: a February summit on Native leadership, and another gathering later this year expected to draw hundreds of Native youths to the White House.

Members of President Obama’s Cabinet are scheduled to travel in the coming months to Indian Country for discussions with youths on how federal policies could be improved.

Mr. Roessel and Mr. Yu are also celebrating the recently approved congressional spending bill that provides a $40 million funding increase for BIE schools, including more construction money to repair or replace crumbling schools.

Tribal education departments that have three or more BIE schools on their reservations were eligible for the sovereignty grants. The six original recipient tribes are Gila River Indian Community of Sacaton, Ariz.; Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of Fort Yates, N.D.; Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Belcourt, N.D.; Navajo Nation; Tohono O’Odham Nation; and the Oglala Sioux.

Federal officials said the grant funds will help tribes develop improvement plans that are tied to goals for improving academic achievement and correcting operational efficiencies, including those identified in a Government Accountability Office report released in November. The watchdog agency found that many BIE schools have serious financial problems, including a lack of proper oversight and accumulations of unspent funds that aren’t reaching classrooms and students as intended.

Mr. Tso said it’s a problem he’s seen far too often in schools across the Navajo Nation, with policies and procedures “all over the place.”

Many of the school districts operate independently with little regard for federal education guidelines, which is a problem for the 38,000 students educated on and around the reservation, which spans three states, he said.

Navajo Nation leaders will use the grant to pay for a two-year project to align curriculum, establish some adherence to the Common Core State Standards, and modernize an outdated teacher-evaluation system.

The BIE and tribes are eager to embrace change, said Mr. Yu.

“There’s not an expectation that this will take a long time,” he said.

But trust may remain the biggest hurdle.

“There are a lot of people who have been through this whole process before. They’re leery about any direction coming from the top,” Mr. Tso said. “The BIE is recognizing that things didn’t work before. They want to do something differently.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Feds Confront Doubts in Plan to Fix Tribal Schools


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