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Reservation Schools Preserve Cultures, Boost Academics

Infused with state and federal money but facing more requirements and students with challenges, staff at two Native American schools in Maine talked with Education World about meeting their two missions: passing on Native American culture and boosting academics. This article is a part of a continuing Education World series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Included: Educators share insights about teaching a Native American population.

Education World Visits Two Native American Schools

Donald Salm is principal at Beatrice Rafferty School. To get a flavor for life at Beatrice Rafferty, 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
* Native American Schools Ponder, Assail Dropout Rates
* Principal Primes Kids to Succeed
* Indian Island Principal Reflects On Native Schools' Goals, Challenges

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.


In many ways, this is the best of times for Native American schools. Although most are in rural areas, many are technology- and program-rich, thanks to state and federal funding. Curriculum is designed to prepare students academically for life off the reservation while grounding them in their native culture.

Meeting both missions, though, can also be the biggest challenge for Native American schools. Teachers sometimes battle to fit everything into the day as they juggle federal and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) standards. Social and family problems, as in many communities, affect learning.

"We are still struggling," Lana Shaughnessy, a BIA spokeswoman, said about its 185 schools meeting BIA standards. "We do have some excellent schools. But [schools] are all over the board [in terms of academic achievement]. It's always a challenge working in communities in poverty that are in isolated areas. There are so many factors."

BIA goals for students and schools include the following:

  • Teaching children to read independently by the third grade.
  • Having children be able to demonstrate knowledge of their culture and language.
  • Ensuring that 70 percent of students are proficient or advanced in reading and mathematics.
  • Achieving an individual student attendance rate of 90 percent or higher.
  • Increasing enrollment, retention, placement, and graduation rates for post-secondary students.


Education World visited two Native American schools: Indian Island School on the Penobscot Reservation in Old Town, Maine, and Beatrice Rafferty School on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry, Maine. Those two schools typify the two missions of reservation schools.

At Indian Island School, student-written stories about robots hang on the walls alongside pictures of Native Americans. Instead of the photos of professional athletes displayed in many public schools to inspire students, Indian Island has Native American prayers and pictures of threatened and endangered species on its walls. Students learn their native language and culture not from an elder but in a classroom not far from a room filled with computers.

Even a fifth-grade science project at Indian Island about the life cycle of the Atlantic salmon will include illustrations of how the native Penobscots hunted the fish, a staple of their diet.


The native studies component often is the hook that pulls children into their schoolwork, particularly in the younger grades. Several students said it is their favorite subject. "I wouldn't like school as much without native studies," Gregory, ten, a fifth grader at Indian Island School told Education World. "I like learning Penobscot. I'm teaching my mom Penobscot." Gregory also is learning to paddle a canoe and play the drum in after-school programs.

The challenge is expanding the students' excitement about native studies to all subjects while fighting the perception that the curriculum is less rigorous than in other public schools.

"A lot of people think of a native school as being all cultural," said Shirley Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at Beatrice Rafferty School and a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe. "It's a way to get the kids here, for them to get an identity. Some parents don't want it [teaching the culture]. But the kids understand it and are receptive to it."

At the same time, "The administration is very concerned with academics, and they do what they can to stress that," Cindy Emerson, an aide in Beatrice Rafferty School's kindergarten class, said.

The BIA has recognized how much excitement the native studies component generates and is working to infuse native culture throughout the curriculum in the BIA schools, Shaughnessy said. "It makes the subject areas more relevant."

The list of requirements keeps growing, however. "Each year, it seems, there are more things to include," Indian Island fourth-grade teacher Susan Eaton said.


Even with all the mandates the reservation schools must meet, in many ways they are better off than other rural schools because they are completely funded by state and federal money; there is no anxious waiting each year to see if a local school budget passes.

"We are dealing with an extremely rich school district," said Donald W. Salm, principal of Beatrice Rafferty School. "We are in the poorest county -- Washington County -- in the state. But we get the state stipend and BIA money."

"We are probably able to do more for our kids in this school than [schools can do] across the bridge in Old Town, Bradley, and Orono because of that funding," explained Linda McLeod, principal of Indian Island School, in describing towns bordering the reservation.

The BIA and local boards of education also encourage teachers to participate in professional development, even if the programs are out of state, Salm said. Grant programs make the schools eligible for computers, software, and staff training. "We have a lot compared to other schools," Indian Island's Eaton added.

Class sizes also are extremely small -- between eight and 18 students -- in most grades, making it easier to give children individual attention. "The teachers are really helpful and nice. If we don't get it, they go over it; if we still don't get it, we do work sheets or go to after-school help," said Leona, 13, an eighth grader at Indian Island School, who is taking an algebra course.

As the students get older, though, teachers often encourage them to work in groups because they will not receive the same one-on-one attention in high school, Indian Island kindergarten teacher Beth Kingsbury said.


Even with small classes, teachers still have the challenge of meeting different ability levels. "You get a wide variety of abilities," said Indian Island fifth-grade teacher David Thibodeau. "The kids are miles apart academically and emotionally. You have to make sure everyone gets something out of what you do."

Part of the problem in improving student achievement is that Native American children learn better by doing hands-on projects, Salm said. "They need to see the finished product," he explained.

In addition, teachers who want children tested to determine whether they need extra services to perform better have met some resistance from parents, Mitchell, the first-grade teacher said.

"Some people think you are prying into their business if you say the children need additional services or testing," Mitchell told Education World. "We stress the services are to benefit the children."


Although acknowledging their challenges, both principals said they want to channel some of their resources toward improving standardized test results, particularly with talk at the federal level of tying funding to student test scores.

"We are right at or below state norms," said Salm, Beatrice Rafferty's principal. "It's not the best we can do. Yes, the school has been improving. We'd like to be above the norm."

Indian Island student scores also are near the norm.

Maine students take the Maine Educational Assessment standardized tests in fourth, eighth, and 11th grades. Scores are reported in seven content areas: reading, writing, mathematics, science and technology, social studies, visual and performing arts, and health. They are designed to reflect Maine's Learning Results, a broad set of goals, specific expectations, and content standards developed for schools.

The fact that most of the Indian Island and Beatrice Rafferty students scored in the "partially meeting the standard" category actually is commendable, according to Horace Maxcy, a consultant for the Maine Department of Education. That is the category into which the majority of students statewide fall, he said."I would consider it positive that most partially meet the standard," Maxcy said of the results from the two reservation schools. "It's a rigorous standard. Sixty percent of the score is based on answers students construct themselves."

Still, both Salm and McLeod said they would like to do better. Because Maine's standardized tests focus heavily on mathematics and language skills, Salm said, middle school students would start taking their core courses every day instead of every other day as they have done in the past.

Dana Mitchell, who oversees technology and after-school programs at Beatrice Rafferty, said he is trying to offer activities in the summer and after school that enhance the regular curriculum. He hoped to introduce courses in robotics and rocketry during the summer program and then offer them as extracurricular activities.

For its part, Indian Island was planning a summer program to enhance reading. "We want to do more -- schools need to be year-round," McLeod said.