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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.

ImageEducation 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.

Education World Visits Two Native American Schools

Linda McLeod is principal at Indian Island School. To get a flavor for life at Indian Island, read our Notes from the Classroom.

More Lessons from Our Nation's Schools
This article is part of the second installment in an ongoing Education World series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. In this series, Education World plans to visit and talk with educators, students, and parents in different parts of the country. Read about our visit to two Native American reservation schools in Maine in these stories:

* Reporters' Notebook: Native Americans Struggle, Build Pride
* Teachers on Mission to Save Heritage
* Reservation Schools Preserve Cultures, Boost Academics
* Native American Schools Ponder, Assail Dropout Rates
* Principal Primes Kids to Succeed

Ed World Visits NYC
Have you seen the first installment in our Lessons from Our Nation's Schools series? Read about Education World's visit to three New York City schools in Common Elements of Effective Schools.

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.

Notes from the Classroom

The telephone doesn't seem to stop ringing in the main office of Indian Island School, on the Penobscot reservation, although it is not quite 8 a.m. Linda McLeod, principal of this 114-student school across the Penobscot River from Old Town, Maine, fields phone calls and still manages to talk with staff members who stop by the office.

Although there is a frenetic atmosphere, McLeod appears unfazed. A Native American who was raised off the reservation in an adjacent town, McLeod quickly tells a visitor about her native heritage and her commitment to the school. This year is her first at the helm; she spent most of her past 14 years here as a classroom teacher. It is clear McLeod has great pride and respect for the school's students, the staff, and the reservation community.

The federal government recognized the Penobscot tribe in 1980. Indian Island School is one of three grant schools in Maine partially funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is accredited for early childhood education through grade eight. Eighty-five percent of the children attending the school are Native American. The other 15 percent of the students attend because they live on the reservation.

The school boasts nearly 96-percent attendance, and the majority of parents participate in school events, McLeod told Education World. She stressed that her students face many of the same socioeconomic challenges students in other rural areas of America face.

However, being a Native American school means having the unique task of including lessons about the tribe's heritage, cultural values, and language in the curriculum. McLeod's primary goal is to ease the transition to high school for Indian Island students.

Students and teachers talked about the close-knit environment at the school. Staff members, for example, eat breakfast and lunch with the students every day. "There are not many cliques; everyone mixes with everyone else," said Amber, 13, a seventh grader. Added Naomi, ten, a fourth grader, "The teachers are nice; they help me learn how to write."

Fourth-grade teacher Susan Eaton, who has taught at Indian Island School for 18 years, said she enjoys it because of the environment and access to professional development. "There is a family type of atmosphere. I think there is a lot of parenting in teaching. There also are a lot of professional opportunities because of our affiliation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

Kindergarten teacher Beth Kingsbury agreed. "I like the idea of a small population; there is a family feeling in the school and community," Kingsbury said. "I see people in this community who are proud that they have a small community with a cultural heritage."

The downside of the small school and community, though, is that students often have limited contact with youngsters from other areas, fifth-grade teacher David Thibodeau said. "For the kids, there is not a lot of variety in terms of friends. Like any rural community, they don't get a lot of exposure outside of their immediate community."

For that reason, 13-year-old Leona is looking forward to attending Old Town High School. "It will be bigger, have more kids and more sports."

For others, Indian Island School has the right balance. When asked what he would change about his school if he could, fifth grader Gregory, ten, thought for just a few seconds. "Nothing," he said.