Indian Island Principal Reflects On Native School's Goals, Challenges
Last spring, Education World visited two Native American reservation schools in rural sections of Maine, part of the continuing series Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. In this article, Education World news editor Diane Weaver Dunne talks to Linda McLeod, principal of Indian Island School, which is located north of Bangor, Maine. Included: McLeod reflects on the challenges reservation educators must overcome and how those challenges are often similar to those of other rural public schools.
Education World: What makes this reservation school unique?
Linda McLeod: We're a Native American school with a very, very traditional white society all around us. That makes us unique -- as does as the fact that we receive state funding and federal funding. [The school receives no local funding.] Because of that funding, we are probably able to do more for our kids in this school than, say, even schools across the bridge in Old Town, Bradley, and Orono can do.
In addition, we actively teach native studies to all our children. We talk about the native studies, the history of where the Wabanaki people began and, hopefully, where they are going. [The Wabanaki Nation is made up of four tribes who at one time spoke a similar dialect and have some common cultural beliefs and lifestyles.] We still do the traditional dancing and singing in school every month. We have a cultural celebration every year, and the other thing that we are devoting [time] to is getting the language back. It would be really nice if our kids came to school with two languages.
EW: Is the Penobscot language a lost language?
McLeod: I don't want to use that word lost. It's a struggling language. And again, that is a source of controversy. Do we try to bring things back, or do we just let the language go away? I think the philosophy in the community is "No, we're not going to let it [die]." In order for us to be a distinct culture, we cannot lose our language. That is our culture. We can't have our culture without the language.
EW: What is the role of the tribal community in celebrating traditional events at the school? Do they participate?
McLeod: Absolutely. We send home our calendar. Annually, in May, the community and students go all out [during a celebration], wearing traditional dress and doing the corn dance.
EW: Describe the socio-economic background of the Indian Island community.
McLeod: This community is a poor community. There is industry nearby, and people do take advantage of that. However, in some circumstances, they still don't have jobs. Some are on welfare. We're fortunate because we are located in an area where we are very close to a university. We cross the bridge, and we are in Old Town, a suburb of Bangor, which has industry and places to work and things to do. Old Town has the state of Maine's largest YMCA, which is available for our kids.
EW: What about drug and alcohol abuse problems in the community?
McLeod: This is a small community, a close-knit community, and therefore the alcoholism has a more-devastating effect. Alcohol and drug education has made a difference but not a gigantic difference. But we're working more with the community [to address the problem].
EW: Is recruiting teachers a problem?
McLeod: No, except for finding part-time staff. We have a veteran staff here. Our average staff member has taught for 16 years.
EW: Are you able to recruit Native Americans to your staff?
McLeod: Yes we are. I'm native. I'm Canadian Maliseet. Probably on the staff, we have six or seven people who are native out of a staff of 17 educators. If we look at total staff, which is about 25, a lot of our support staff is Native American.
EW: What is your biggest challenge here?
McLeod: My biggest problem is getting [kids] from eighth grade into a high school. I have a class of eight eighth graders. They are going into high schools in Orono or Old Town or to John Bapst Memorial High School, which is a private school in Bangor. Old Town High School has almost 800 students, and Orono probably has 300 to 400. But when they go to Old Town High School, they are lost. I think there are some culture issues. But I think they aren't as dominant as some people might think they are. I'm not going to say those issues don't exist, because I believe they do exist. I know they exist.
EW: What is the dropout rate?
McLeod: This year, the dropout rate is 16 percent, but over the last three years, it averages out to 25 percent, which is not acceptable. And we're the best [compared with other Native American reservation schools]. But that's not acceptable, and we know that.
We've been working with Old Town High School to come up with a program to support students who can't [successfully complete requirements] during the regular school day. They can do it at night and still be able to graduate with their class.
We can take care of them here [Indian Island School] really well. Teachers go to parents' homes. We knock on doors. We do things in the evenings for parents and children. But, boy, we're not doing what we need to do to keep them in high school.
EW: Is there prejudice against the native students?
McLeod: Let's put it this way. There are some "Archie Bunkers" out there no matter where you go. Is it severe? Sometimes. But at other times, it's an excuse. The children we see that seem to make it are the ones who have been active in this school as far as sports, active in making sure that they are successful.
EW: What is the role of standardized testing here?
McLeod: We will be testing all grades next year. We don't wait until third grade; we test in kindergarten and first grade.
EW: How important is native studies?
McLeod: In social studies and history textbooks, Native American history is an add-on. [Our] teachers bring in a lot more about what it really was like. We discuss treaties, land claims, tribal government, and mascot issues. We make sure we instill pride in their heritage. Self-esteem is so important.
Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
Ellen R. Delisio contributed to "Notes from the Classroom."
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