With the high school dropout rate for Native Americans among the highest in the country, reservation and public school officials are searching for new ways to keep teens in school. This article is a part of a continuing Education World series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Included: Programs designed to reduce the high school dropout rate among Native Americans.
Native Americans long have had one of the highest high school dropout rates of any ethnic group in the nation. Reducing that figure is a priority for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Office of Indian Education Programs and individual BIA schools such as those in Maine: Beatrice Rafferty School, on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry, and Indian Island School, on the Penobscot reservation. Although those schools serve students only through grade eight, dropout prevention has become part of their mission.
"My biggest problem is getting them from eighth grade into a [secondary] school," said Linda McLeod, the Indian Island principal.
The challenge of curbing the Native American dropout rate is nationwide, although progress has been made. According to figures from the BIA Office of Indian Education Programs, the national dropout rate for Native American youngsters decreased from 17 percent in 1992-1993 to 10 percent in 1999-2000. Those figures, though, include only students who attend BIA secondary schools, not public schools, according to Gaye Liea King, special assistant to the director of the Office of Indian Education Programs.
Few of the K-8 BIA schools are able to keep track of students once they leave to determine if they graduate from high school, added King. Both Maine schools, though, follow their alumni, and their high school dropout rates are higher than the national average. Indian Island's alumni dropout rate has averaged about 25 percent over the past few years, while Beatrice Rafferty's alumni dropout rate is about 60 percent.
The BIA also conducted a survey of middle school students in 1997 to determine which at-risk behaviors among students could contribute to them dropping out of school. Results of a second survey, done this year, still were being compiled.
The 1997 study, which surveyed 6,990 sixth- through eighth-graders out of a total BIA middle school population of 8,932, showed that by age 11, 36 percent of students had smoked a cigarette, 26 percent had their first alcoholic drink, 18 percent had smoked marijuana, and 5 percent had had sexual intercourse.
National studies also have cited the clash of Native American and Anglo cultures as a factor affecting native students' adjustment to public high schools. Some students from Beatrice Rafferty School told Education World that students at public schools made fun of them when they demonstrated native dances at the public school.
In addition, reservation schools often are small, and native students can feel intimidated when they move on to large public high schools. Native youngsters also learn better through a hands-on approach to learning rather than by direct instruction, according to some research.
McLeod, Indian Island's principal, said that although she thinks there may be some cultural clashes and bias at the area high schools, the main problem is that her school's graduates feel overwhelmed when they leave the 114-student Indian Island School for a larger high school. Students receive a lot of individual attention at Indian Island, where many of the classes have fewer than 10 students.
In 2000-2001, Indian Island School had eight eighth-graders; half planned to attend Orono High School, in Orono, which has an enrollment of 300 to 400 students, and half planned to go to Old Town High School, in Old Town, which has about 800 students.
"They go to Old Town, and they are lost," McLeod said. "They [the Indian Island graduates] know four kids in this pool of 200 kids, going in different directions, and they get lost very easily. And unless they are really self-assured and feel good about themselves, it's very easy for them to give up."
Students generally do well in their freshman year, but the largest number drop out in their sophomore and junior years, McLeod said. If they fall behind in their work as sophomores, they find it difficult to catch up, especially because they are accustomed to one-on-one attention, she said. Often those students miss too many classes to get course credit and drop out.
To combat this problem, Indian Island and Old Town High School administrators are working together on transition programs. Youngsters are encouraged to participate in activities at the YMCA to get them more accustomed to larger groups, McLeod said. She also thinks an additional high school guidance counselor is needed, one who would meet regularly with the Native American students, find out if they are behind in attendance or schoolwork, and help them before they are in danger of losing course credit.
Terry Kenniston, Old Town High School's principal, said he has met with representatives from the Penobscot reservation to develop a more concrete program for Native American students. "We want to see what we can do to make sure they get a diploma," Kenniston told Education World. The school's overall dropout rate is about 1.25 percent, he said.
Currently, a member of the Penobscot tribe meets with Penobscot students at Old Town High about once a month, to see how they are doing. The high school also hosts some Native American programs for the entire school to increase understanding of the culture.
In some cases, students are aware that their parents faced prejudice while in school, Kenniston said, which affects their attitude as well. "I'm sure some of the parents who went here did not have a positive experience," he said.
Donald Salm, Beatrice Rafferty School principal, said a lack of transportation or family problems could be among the reasons for the high dropout figure for alumni of his school. Although he has been principal only a few months, Salm knows it is an issue he has to tackle.
"Obviously, we've been able to identify students who have not been successful," Salm told Education World. "We are putting together a program for credit recovery. We can help them finish their high school diploma or, if they are behind, we can catch them up and then they can return to their appropriate grade in high school.
"Then we also have an adult component. We've got a program in place where adults are actually working on GED (General Equivalency Diploma) material. We know we have a need on the reservation for this, so we are making this opportunity available through the school, even though we are a K-8 school. We do have high schools in the area that work with us."
Shirley Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at Beatrice Rafferty who is Passamaquoddy and grew up on the reservation, said she does not understand why the dropout rate now is so high.
"When we went off the reservation, we did not have these kinds of dropout rates," said Mitchell, who graduated from Shead High School in nearby Eastport in 1966. "Our parents told us you had to go on to high school, you had to go beyond the reservation and the state to look for jobs."
Mitchell said she did not recall much discrimination in high school but added that she blended in with the other students because she has lighter hair and skin.
Dottie Browne, who is Passamaquoddy, the parent of several Beatrice Rafferty students, and president of the board of education, said many factors now prompt youngsters to leave school.
"A lot of them aren't prepared," Browne told Education World. "A lot of them are scared. A lot of them have to work twice as hard, and they don't have the support at home stressing how important education is."
Browne attended a reservation school through grade eight and then attended a large public high school. Even though both of her parents set high standards for achievement -- her father earned a masters degree in education at Harvard -- high school was difficult for her.
"I really struggled in college prep classes that first year," she said. "I made it, but I had to back off. I felt I wasn't prepared enough to keep up with what was going on."
Shead High School, though, is reaching out to Native American students, both on and off campus, to help as many as possible finish high school.
"We are very persistent," Principal Bernard Peatman told Education World.
A problem that Peatman said he has observed among the Native American students is that many have low aspirations and have trouble making long-term plans. Things are starting to change, though; the valedictorian of the Class of 2001 was a Native American student, Peatman said. Of an enrollment of 175 students, Shead has 61 Native American students, the highest percentage of any school in the state.
One effort that is paying off is the high school's alternative program, to which students must apply. The program provides students with individual instruction, counseling, and help setting long-term goals. Students also are offered less traditional ways to make up credits, such as through work experience, preparing Native American histories, or tutoring other students, said Peatman. Eighteen of the 25 students in the alternative program are Native Americans.
Peatman said he has seen the program help students; in one case, a Native American student had attended Shead for three years but still had earned no credits. That student was able to make up all of the credits during two years in the alternative program and by attending summer programs.
Shead teachers also have home-tutored students so they could graduate, and last year the school sent two part-time teachers to the reservation to teach students there. That worked so well that the reservation's school board has requested one full-time teacher for the reservation next year, Peatman said.
The key is acting early, Indian Island's McLeod said. "It's not waiting until it is a problem, when a child has already lost his or her credit," she said. "It's nipping it in the bud before it is anywhere near that."